How to automate outdoor logistics flows

The automation of outdoor flows has always been the goose that lays the golden eggs of internal logistics. Let us bear in mind that the outdoor routes are usually long and that as in the rest of the logistics, the driver does not add any value to the product. In fact, the only thing the driver does is just that: drive.

First of all, it is clear that here we are talking about automation of internal logistics flows, not external street or highway logistics flows. We leave that to Google, Tesla, etc; although that type of applications exists and today a convergence between the two automations (internal and external) is discussed in several forums.

The sectors that can be favored by the automation of these intralogistics flows range from mining to the manufacturing of large components. These automations can now be found in the following sectors:

· Industry: since at any industrial complex in which there is more than one work building, oudoor logistics flows exist. For example: automotive, aeronautics, shipyards, metal ...

· Logistics: as in the case of industry, as soon as there is more than one building, there are outdoor logistics flows. For example: logistics hubs with more than one building, ports (for the movement and storage of containers), airports (for the transport of luggage and cargo) ...

Like the logistics flows inside buildings, the automation of the flows outside is carried out using the technology of AGVs (automated guided vehicles).

Despite the potential of this automation, until relatively recently (5-10 years) it was difficult to find this type of system working in outdoors applications. The main stopper that AGV manufacturers found to carry out these projects was the lack of safety devices developed to work outdoors.

Quick explanation: any AGV that wants to work at a high speed (over 0.3 m/s) must be able to scan the space in front of it using a safety device, ensuring that if a person is found, it will be able to stop without hitting that person. To guarantee this safety, indoor AGVs for many years have been equipped with safety lasers which, however, have the disadvantage of detecting rain, fog and snow as if they were a real obstacle.

In recent years, laser manufacturers have developed safety lasers that detect obstacles just like indoor lasers, but with the advantage that they filter out rain, fog, and snow.

In this way, while there has been no laser allowing AGVs to work at high speeds, most of the outdoor applications were not profitable. It is important to take into account that the lower the AGV speed, the greater the number of AGVs to install and therefore the lower the profitability of the solution.

The two types of AGVs used for these outdoor transportation applications are the following:

1) Tractor AGVs:

The solution consists of a logistics train whose locomotive is the AGV.

Example of such solution at the automotive sector (SEAT):

Example of such solution at an airport:

2) Platform AGVs:

The solution consists of a vehicle that transports the load on its back.

Here an example at the metal sector (Acerinox):

Here an example at the Rotterdam Port:

And what are the future challenges of this application? Mainly two:

· Speed: increasing the speed of the vehicles will increase the profitability of this type of project. Of course, this increase in speed, as mentioned before, will be closely linked to the evolution of safety systems.

· Connectivity: the installation of WiFi networks that allow the connectivity of the AGVs along their route currently has a very high cost. For this reason, applications that incorporate 4G LTE communications are already being developed. That will probably lead to 5G in the future.