Rethink and Reroute

By Ruari McCallion

March 2024

Driverless vehicle advances in airport and warehouse logistics

A lot of hopes have been placed on the prospects for driverless vehicles (DVs) but, after some high-profile and serious accidents, are their best days behind them? Or is there a clear way through for logistics applications? Ruari McCallion speaks to those in the know.

DVs and AGVs

There are differences between Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Driverless Vehicles (DVs). AGVs are limited in what they can do; they have a lot in common with trains in that they will follow a predetermined route – and only that route. They will stop at programmed points along a prescribed journey and nothing else.

DVs have a degree of autonomy, or ability to work out alternatives from information already held in their memory banks.

Driverless forklift trucks are already in use in warehouses.  Eureka magazine published a feature on them in October 2022, here. However, these are not autonomous vehicles; they are preprogrammed or may be remotely controlled, which puts them in the AGV camp.

Twenty years ago, in 2004, DARPA – the USA Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – launched the first in its series of Grand Challenges, intended to stimulate the development of driverless and fully autonomous ground vehicles. The challenge was to create a vehicle capable of completing an off-road course of several miles within a limited time.

The first event wasn’t a huge success, but other Grand Challenges followed. Real progress seemed to have been made when an entry from Carnegie Mellon University and General Motors completed a 96 km course in less than six hours.

Aurrigo Auto Dolly Tug Nov 23-clipped

Aurrigo Auto-Dolly Tug – currently deployed at Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky International Airport and at Stuttgart Airport.

Since then, Tesla, Uber and Google, to name but three, have extensively tested and even launched vehicles claimed to be autonomous – to be able to carry passengers in safety without the need for drivers. ANA (All Nippon Airways) has piloted a driverless electric bus for airport transport at Haneda Airport in Japan, while Aurrigo, a UK-based company, has developed driverless ‘pods’ for passenger transport in urban environments.

The human factor

What was looking like an unstoppable march to a future of driverless vehicles whisking passengers along urban roads and even arterial motorways came juddering to halt in the wake of two accidents involving pedestrians. One of Uber’s self-driving vehicles killed a woman in Phoenix, Arizona, who had apparently confused its tracking computers by pushing her bicycle laden with shopping bags onto the highway. In October 2023, a woman crossing a road in San Francisco was hit by a human-driven car into the path of a driverless Cruise robotaxi – which didn’t stop but, instead, ran over her.

The compensation in both cases is expected to run into millions of dollars. These events have led to a very deep rethink by producers and by governments.

It is perhaps ironic that just two accidents may bring an entire technology to a halt when vehicles supposedly fully under the control of human beings kill 1.2 million people every year across the world, according to the World Health Organisation.

What is ‘safe’?

Siddartha Khastgir clipped

“I have had lots of discussions as to what should be the safety threshold for a driverless car,” says Dr Siddartha Khastgir, Head of Verification and Validation of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles at Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), University of Warwick, England. He represents the UK on the ISO Technical Committee and has worked with Tata Motors in India and with powertrain design engineers FEV Consulting in Germany.

“Most of these discussions tend to be among groups of engineers. Social scientists have said to me that it’s not for engineers to define how safe a driverless car should be; it is for society, and those conversations are not happening right now.”

Says Dr Siddartha Khastgir

Dr Khastgir also points out that there is no technology, anywhere in the world, that is 100% safe. The challenge is to accurately define the bounds of design patterns.

Driverless Vehicles (DVs) on public highways are probably ten years away, he thinks, but technology enabling their use in warehouses could be just three years away or even sooner. Access is restricted, journeys are limited, and purposes can be clearly defined in large warehouses or logistics handling areas – or on the airside of airports.

Right place, right time

A company called Aurrigo has been making driverless ‘pods’ for several years. Initially, they were marketed as passenger-carrying vehicles, but the company has switched its focus to cargo handling. It has recently announced what is described as a ‘Project Agreement’ with International Airlines Group (IAG) for the deployment and demonstration of aviation solutions for baggage operations at the Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) and a European contract to operate cargo movements at Stuttgart Airport (STR). The trials, which are expected to go ‘live’ in March 2024, will use Aurrigo’s latest Mk3 Auto-Dolly Tug, an autonomous, electric vehicle that combines the functions of a baggage tractor with the capacity to carry a ULD (unit load device).

These projects were announced after Aurrigo and UPS revealed that they were collaborating on the deployment of Aurrigo’s Auto-Cargo autonomous electric vehicle, designed to move heavy cargo loads to and from aircraft, at the UPS hub at East Midlands Airport, the UK’s second-largest cargo terminal. Auto-Cargo can transport a standard full-size cargo pallet or two half-size aviation industry ULDs up to a total load of 7.5 tonnes and tow a further fully loaded cargo trailer behind it.

“We were approached in 2018 by British Airways / International Airlines Group, who asked if we could design something to move baggage and cargo round Heathrow Airport,” says David Keene, CEO of Aurrigo International plc.

The Aurrigo trucks provide a solution for a problem that has been dogging airport operations for years. Airside baggage movement is the far less glamorous side of airport activities.

David Keene-clipped

It’s a heavy-duty task, carried out in all weathers, which can be dirty and dangerous and is often difficult. It’s ripe for automation, in short, and has quickly become Aurrigo’s prime target market. It’s also a predictable space with fewer safety concerns.

Defining safe space

“You aren’t going to see a dog, a horse, a person with a bicycle, someone with shopping or any of those things you have to watch out for on the road,” David Keene explains. Speeds are normally restricted to about 20 mph (32 kph).

There is definitely demand. Worldwide aircraft movements are back to pre-Covid levels, but staff are in short supply and under pressure. The trade unions are enthusiastic, as driverless vehicles automate the mundane jobs and improve safety for human operatives. A DV has a degree of autonomy, or ability to work out alternatives if a route is blocked, for example, but it can only access alternatives from information already held in its memory bank.

Advanced technology

“It will have all the buildings and routes in its brain. When you put it onto the route it will dynamically recreate what it can see. It uses multiple sensors, including LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging).” An array of stereo cameras enables it to analyse the scene through which it is moving. If it sees another object coming towards it, mechanical or human, it assesses whether it is a ‘threat’ or an obstacle and will take appropriate action. It could stop and let the other pass, adjust speed, or find another route from its memory. It’s clear there’s a lot of highly sophisticated IT involved.

Aurrigo has staff developing it at locations across the world, on their own and in partnerships. It is working on the Stuttgart Airport project with the Digital Testbed Cargo Project (DTAC) Consortium (funded by the German Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport), under the academic leadership of the Frauhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics and the Frankfurt University of Applied Science. The East Midlands Airport project is supported, in collaboration with UPS, by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV). It has almost £500 million in funding.

Roborace-Festival of Speed

© Roborace. DevBot 2.0.

How far DV technology has advanced was made dramatically clear by a vehicle called Roborace DevBot 2.0, which went up the 1.16-mile hill-climb course at the 2019 Goodwood ‘Festival of Speed’, in the UK, in just 66.96 seconds.

That demonstration showcased the tech; companies like Aurrigo are putting it into practical use. It may be ten years or more before DVs are accepted on public highways but practical applications in restricted-access spaces are already here. They may be too large for narrow-aisle warehouses just yet, but operations in larger and external spaces are very much here and now.