Major retail locations begin pilot program for autonomous delivery tugs

Aug. 14, 2020
The new robotic solution is designed to transport goods from stockrooms to store shelves.

In this week’s roundup from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which highlights some of the latest news and headlines in unmanned vehicles and robotics, autonomous delivery tugs for retail stories enter pilot programs, new patents are awarded for automated unmanned air traffic control system technologies, and UAS are used to inspect airport runways.

Brain Corp's manufacturing partners deploy autonomous delivery tugs across the U.S.

Artificial intelligence software technology company Brain Corp has announced that its manufacturing partners are involved in several pilots and initial deployments of autonomous delivery tugs powered by BrainOS, which is Brain Corp’s cloud-connected operating system for commercial autonomous robots.

According to Brain Corp, these commercial rollouts mark the industry debut of a “new robotic application that helps retailers bridge the automation gap in moving inventory from the stockroom out to store shelves.”

The rollouts and pilots are being carried out at major retail locations across the nation by power assist technologies designer and manufacturer Dane Technologies and high-performance material handling equipment company UniCarriers Americas Corporation (UCA). Brain Corp signed agreements with both companies to enable manufacturing of the tugs.

Robotic delivery tugs that move materials and goods back and forth have traditionally been relegated to warehouse settings, but these tugs are capable of safely navigating in public environments thanks to being equipped with Brain Corp's AI technology. According to robotics analyst firm ABI Research, this is the first tug application of its kind capable of operating within high-traffic commercial locations, such as retail and grocery aisles.

“The supply chain ends at the customer, not the back warehouse,” says John Black, the senior vice president of new product development.

“These new autonomous delivery robots help automate the movement of goods for that 'last 500 feet'—the distance between the stockroom and store shelves. This has huge ramifications for increasing employee productivity, improving customer satisfaction, and reducing potential exposure to workers' comp claims.”

Capable of operating safely within various public indoor spaces such as grocery, retail, airports, and warehouses, the BrainOS-powered delivery tugs do not require any custom infrastructure or specialized training, as they deliver “accessible automation” on the spot. Users can leverage a patented “teach and repeat” technology that simplifies deployment and can be adapted on the fly to changes in store layout. Users can also leverage cloud-based performance metrics in near real-time to get reports on delivery usage, routes, drop-offs, and more.

Depending on the size of the store, number of employees, and other key factors, retailers could save on average up to $100,000 per year per location using the autonomous delivery tug, according to initial Brain Corp estimates. This includes between six to 12 hours per day in transport labor savings, as well as reduced risk and staff turnover costs.

“This is a true game changer for retailers and other businesses that want to easily automate an arduous and repetitive task,” says Dan Johnson, founder and CEO of Dane Technologies, which pioneered the QuicKART, the world's most widely adopted shopping cart return system.

“The value is off the charts for this application, which can also be used to transport trash and recyclables, as well support online order fulfillment.”

PrecisionHawk awarded two patents for its UTM technologies

PrecisionHawk has been awarded two patents for technologies it has developed for UAS traffic management (UTM).

Known as the ‘Automated Unmanned Air Traffic Control System,’ the patents are designed to enable collision avoidance between drones and manned aircraft, which is achieved by transmitting real-time flight data from drones to a UTM server prior to and while in-flight.

According to PrecisionHawk, the first patent is for technology that allows drones to send real-time telemetry to flight servers to avoid collisions while in the air. The second patent helps drone operators avoid collisions by transmitting their flight plan to a traffic management server prior to a flight to see if there is a potential for flight conflicts. The traffic management server receives similar data for other drones and manned aircraft, and if there is potential for collision, the traffic management server sends an alert to the drone so the operator can adjust the flight plan.

An early pioneer in the UTM space, PrecisionHawk introduced the Low Altitude Tracking and Avoidance System (LATAS) in 2015. Using real-time flight data transmission based on existing worldwide cellular networks, LATAS was designed to provide flight planning, tracking, and avoidance for every drone in the sky.

PrecisionHawk says that it researched and developed LATAS to show that integrating drones into the National Airspace (NAS) could be done safely, which would enable broad drone operations.

“It’s clear that the more you know about the real-time environment you’re operating in, the more safely and efficiently you can operate,” says Dr. Allison Ferguson, PrecisionHawk director, Airspace Research.

“The more important question is how does a drone operator reliably get that situational awareness? What information is needed and when? LATAS was a key enabling technology for the Pathfinder efforts, which were aimed at determining answers to precisely those questions.”

According to PrecisionHawk, a “robust, automated” UTM system must be in place to not only help realize the humanitarian and economic benefits of drone technology in a safe and secure manner, but to also handle the expected traffic with remote identification to identify UAS. With this in mind, PrecisionHawk says that these patents will “contribute to the efforts to bring a safe, secure UAS traffic control system online.”

UAS used to remotely inspect runway at Cranfield Airport in England

For the first time, UAS were used to remotely inspect the runway at Cranfield Airport, which is located just outside the village of Cranfield, in Bedfordshire, England.

Utilizing ‘drone-in-a-box’ technology, the flights’ goal was to enable routine inspections using UAS that can be automatically deployed, recovered and recharged without the need for an on-site pilot.

“As a fully-functional research airport located on a university campus, this kind of technology demonstration and development exercise is very much in our DNA,” says Rob Abbott, director of Aviation Operations at Cranfield Airport.

“Using UAVs to conduct inspections could reduce operational costs and is another example of the work we are doing to explore and harness the potential of unmanned aircraft.”

Regulations currently require UAS to be operated within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the remote pilot at all times. Due to current VLOS restrictions, initial flights are inspecting half of the runway. The flights take around 30 minutes to complete as the UAS fly at 100 feet from the ground.

Before each flight, flight requests are made to air traffic control. Images or videos taken are combined and uploaded to cloud storage for visual review.

Work is ongoing to automate the evaluation process with the use of more advanced sensors or thermal imaging cameras to detect and highlight hazards.

“We are very excited to be working on this with Cranfield Airport. We see enormous benefits to using drone-in-a-box technology for industrial inspection and monitoring applications,” says Edward Anastassacos, managing director of HEROTECH8, the company providing the ‘drone-in-a-box’ system.

“With Cranfield, we hope to demonstrate a continuous runway monitoring capability. These flights are a step towards fully automated, industrial drone operations at scale.”

According to Cranfield University, drones could be used in the future to inspect other areas such as perimeter fences. These operations could take place regularly; for example, in the morning before the Airport opens, and in the evening after closing, to detect damage or the presence of foreign objects which can be dangerous for aircraft.

Compiled by Brian Sprowl, Associate Editor, AUVSI

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