Transporting goods is what has characterised civilisation and it is, along with production, at the bases of world economy. We had, as a species, thousands of years to finely tune goods transportation. Better road and standardisation were among the first pillars (cart axles had to be standardised so that wheels can fit in the ruts created by the continuous passage of carts).
Over the last 50 years ICT has changed the world of goods transport by making a more efficient use of infrastructures. I’ll touch on this next, when speaking about logistics and production.
The basics for goods transports have seen a change in the last century first with motorised vehicles, then with airplanes. In the previous century railroads boosted goods transportation and they continued to evolve in the last century. In 2016 UberRUSH has started to bring the power of crowdsourcing to the delivery of small packages within a city.
What’s new? Well, to me I can see two new goods transport infrastructures coming up:
- automated vehicle for goods delivery
- use of vehicles intended for people transport to deliver goods.
ICT and sensors are making autonomous vehicles an “affordable” reality that is happening one step at a time. As an example we have seen truck platooning experiments and we can expect them becoming the norm by the end of this decade for long haul transport. Within a city platooning makes no sense. We are also seeing first experiments of small packages delivery through small motorized autonomous carts.
A good deal of automation is already present to sort out goods and deliver them to loading stations in automated warehouses and it is likely that experiences made in that context will be a springboard for the deployment of these robotised vehicles in a city environment.
A Municipality should start planning for facilitating this type of delivery, by making sure sidewalks can accommodate these vehicles (no step at the end of the sidewalk…) and by allowing the use of bike lane. One should not expect this form of delivery to displace the present one but gradually it will have more and more impact. Big players in goods delivery are already looking into this. A partnership with them could be a good move for a Municipality.
An alternative way to deliver small packages is by using drones. Drones have reached a big popularity also in the mass market and it is possible to get one from a department store. However, using drones for packages delivery is tricky and there are several stumbling block on the road.
Regulations so far are generally very cautious, forbidding drones to fly over populated areas unless they are tethered and under constant supervion, which of course block their commercial use.
Technology is progressing to increase their reliability and their control. At EIT Digital, as an example, there is a project in 2017 to use LTE to control drones, ensuring high reliability. One of the objective of the project is to test technology solutions and “convince” regulators to loosen up some constraints. Notice that one thing is to have a drone delivering goods, quite another is to have thousands of them in a city airspace delivering goods. You need to have a quite sophisticated way of controlling the various flight paths with a density that goes well beyond the one we are currently managing in civil aviation.
Intel has shown how to manage and synchronise drones with distributed intelligence algorithms.
Experiments so far are very limited, mostly because of these stringent regulations, although there have been a few annoucements to use drones in goods delivery also in urban areas (like Amazon Prime Air ).
It is anyhow foreseable that sometime in the next decade drones will start to beocme a player in delivering goods in a city environent. A municipality should start planning for this in two ways:
- becoming a partner in the trials with the goal of steering the technology solutions in synch with the city’s infrastructures so that they will become a partner in this new delivery infrastructure; a fall out of this will be to preparea a new regulation that stimulate, with all due attention to safety of course, the shifting of traffic from the roads to the air space;
- foster guidelines for civil installations and residential buildings that will support this kind of delivery, similarly to the regulations already in place in several cities requiring any new building to include sufficient parking space, bike access, handicap facilities.
Drones, as well as automated vehicles will not, by themselves, radically change the good transport infrastructure but coupled with a new wave of production and a new approach to logistics may radically change the scenario in two decades.
Two decades might seem like a long time but on a city scale it is just the time it takes for planning an evolving scenario. Hence the time to look into automated goods delivery vehicles and drones is NOW.