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Across the entire supply chain, a significant number of devices can be operated remotely, ranging from machinery to autonomous vehicles, forklifts, and drones.

Source: EE Times Asia

Relevance to the Future of Logistics

Remotely Controlled Vehicles

The pandemic saw desk-based workers change their working environments to homes or other remote locations, but on-site operational workers still needed to be physically present and maintain social distance. This presented an opportunity for tech providers to tackle how operations could continue running while ensuring employee safety in a warehouse environment. Many of these jobs are rooted in the physical realm; however start-up companies such as Phantom Auto developed remote operation software that can be integrated with unmanned vehicles, from delivery robots to forklifts and yard trucks. Employees can then use a digital platform to monitor and control fleets from far away and map an area for robots to follow. Without causing any disruptions to workflows or the supply chain, this type of solution ensures customer demands are met while keeping employees safe.

Another area of opportunity for vehicle remote control is training new operations personnel. In the past, to prepare drivers for yard truck driving, a trainer and trainee would sit together inside the truck cab. A socially distanced solution is for the trainer to sit alone in the cab while the trainee sits at a remote console observing and learning how to operate the truck remotely. Changing the day-to-day working lives of employees who can now operate vehicles autonomously also opens up the talent pool that companies can draw from as they can employ staff from any remote location.

Remote-Controlled Operations Using Digital Twins

Digital twins can drive further efficiency in teleoperation, enabling the remote operation of machinery, automation, and ultimately entire production systems. For difficult-to-access locations, a digital twin eliminates the need for a human to physically go to the location to operate a machine or undertake any other task; instead, they can operate at the location remotely. Energy giant Shell, for instance, has partnered with tech solution provider Kongsberg Digital, using its software-as-a-service solution for a digital twin of the Shell upstream, integrated gas, downstream, and manufacturing business lines. This cloud-based digital twin solution named Kognitwin will provide integration, visualization, and analytics capabilities to Shell’s facility assets globally by contextualizing real-time sensor data. The adoption of this technology provides access to a company’s portfolio of assets from anywhere, expanding the scope of remote operations.

In logistics and supply chain operations, digital twins can be implemented to harmonize the physical space with the virtually created twin. This enables remote operation and management of a wide range of logistics activities across warehouses, sorting centers, and other facilities.

Teleoperation as a Safety Fallback

Teleoperation can be of assistance for a vehicle that operates largely autonomously in a scenario where it cannot cope alone. One of the main setbacks to scaling out and implementing autonomous vehicles is that decision-making artificial intelligence models need to be trained. This training ensures vehicles respond correctly to a vast array of driving condition scenarios and situations that may occur, and covering every possible real-world scenario is practically impossible. In order to bridge this gap, teleoperators must guide the autonomous vehicle when it encounters unnavigable new scenarios and situations. Serving as a technological bridge, teleoperation acts as a connector, bringing existing automation technologies more rapidly onto roads and into operations.

A common scenario would be a double-parked delivery vehicle. The autonomous vehicle is prevented from driving over a solid line on its own, so it will remain where it is until a teleoperator intervenes. Another example is a construction site that has yet to be incorporated into the automated system. A teleoperator would need to guide all vehicles safely into and out of this location.

The future role of teleoperators will be supported by a specific setup comprising monitors, user interfaces, and headsets. Each teleoperator can sit together with others in a control center or alone at a remote location while guiding autonomous vehicles through difficult situations at multiple geographical locations.

Decentralized Last-Mile Delivery

Remote work will change supply chains, especially in busy urban cores.

When most people worked in the office, mail and day-to-day business deliveries were centralized but as some people now work from home, these services are becoming decentralized. For example, laptop deliveries for new employees who work from home now get mailed to HR. Also as fewer people are in the office, the volume of food deliveries to corporate cafeterias is decreasing – work-from-homers eat in their own kitchens or near where they live. These changes require realignment in the logistics industry.

Businesses that service downtown workers are also decentralizing or changing location. For example, the sandwich shop franchise Pret a Manger is closing downtown restaurants and opening up suburban ones to cater for the rising number of people who work from home; the company is therefore developing a more decentralized supply chain.

Urban spaces will see a shift in utilization as 30% of the workforce is expected to work remotely after the pandemic. In the average downtown area, 71% of buildings are offices (90% in Chicago and NYC), and so workforce decentralization will certainly impact the socio-economic urban landscape.

Challenges

The absence of physical sensing makes it difficult for the teleoperator to take an informed decision on behalf of an autonomous vehicle.
When remotely operating both autonomous vehicles and machinery, the lack of human cognition and perception may present a “blind spot” in situational awareness, spatial awareness, and/or depth perception.
If there is a malfunction that cannot be supported or resolved remotely, this introduces a security and IT risk; a flexible, agile response would be required from the human operator.

This trend should be ACTIVELY monitored, with imminent developments and applications.

Outlook

With a significant rise in demand for autonomous vehicles and growing adoption of remote-controlled operations in logistics, this trend is likely to evolve into ubiquitous adoption in the coming 5 years. With the help of remote teleoperation, the transportation and logistics industry is capable of managing a wide array of tasks with improved efficiency and safety.

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