Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Drones and Autonomous Vehicles, Love Them, Hate Them, They Are Here to Stay

Insurers Hold Webinar to Discuss the Future Risks and Advantages
Shipping News Feature

UK – WORLDWIDE – Over the past decade we have looked at the full panoply of autonomous devices being used and developed for the logistics market. Whether it be land, sea or air someone out there is advancing the technology with a view to removing, at least partially, the human element, and now the insurance sector has taken a look to see what is going on.

Opinions on the autonomous machines vary in what is always going to be a heated discussion, from Phil Steel in Deer Trail, Colorado and his ‘licence to kill’ the things, to those who evangelise that the devices are safer than normal vehicles, the fact that this is the 75th story in the past seven years in which we have used the term ‘drones’ gives an indication that, for the logistics sector, these things give some real, if limited, options.

The desire to know more drove the TT Club to launch its own webinar entitled ‘Drones and autonomous vehicles: The future… now?’ in a bid to understand the benefits and limitations of the technologies as well as the accelerating effects on adoption within international supply chains brought about by the current crisis.

The Club looked at the benefits of such automation to freight transport infrastructure including the claims for sustainability, cost reduction, environmental protection and resistance to disruption. It did however allow that the adoption of such technologies has seen a degree of resistance due to concerns over safety, security, levels of investment and variable regulatory regimes.

The panel which the TT Club chose to lead the discussion however contained no dissenting voices, all panellists having very direct vested interests in promoting the technologies. Any doubts regarding the serious matters such as safety was voiced by anyone else looking in on the webinar and little mention of this appears in the report of the forum contents.

Participating in the forum under the guidance of TT Club’s MD of Loss Prevention, Mike Yarwood were: Svilen Rangelov, Co-Founder and CEO at Dronamics; Pranav Manpuria, CEO of autonomous truck developer, Flux Auto and Hussain Quraishi, Strategic Innovation Manager at Wärtsilä, a leader in smart technologies for marine and energy markets. Each naturally emphasised the advantages of autonomy on the transport modes in which they specialise.

Rangelov outlined the flexibility of drones in delivering cargo by air to smaller and possibly more remote centres of population as economically and as swiftly as larger cities. Speed to market for urgently required supplies, such has been seen during the Covid-19 crisis, was also emphasised.

Taking a broader slice of the supply chain, Manpuria suggested that driverless trucks could be slotted into a transport system that also features automated warehouses, ports and freight terminals. Computer-guided inventory selection, product picking and packing and lift-truck operations can be integrated with optimum road vehicle scheduling, he said, to improve supply chain efficiency.

At sea, the near-term benefits of autonomy including increased safety and voyage optimisation have already been realised. The medium-term benefits of reduced crew are expected to impact coastal cargo vessels the most, where crew expense forms a higher percentage of operating costs and where enhanced situational awareness and precise manoeuvrability is at a premium.

Wärstilä’s autonomous technology in the marine sector is well advanced across smart sensors, smart routing and smart vessel control. The technology is demonstrable and the Finnish headquartered group claim has been proven to enhance safety and provide operational savings. Mike Yarwood commented:

“To provide a forum at which the pros and cons can be explained and debated was our primary aim. Some of the concerns about widespread use of autonomous transport methods, safety and security for instance, can be in fact improved in certain circumstances through the technology. At TT Club, one of our fundamental principles is the dissemination of best practice and risk mitigation across all modes. We feel therefore that an understanding of, and debate about, the implications of automation is vital for its responsible development.

"The Covid-19 crisis has certainly acted as an accelerant for change in potential adoption of autonomous technology, as it has in other aspects of supply chain management, but significant barriers need to be overcome. Our panel identified a number of these and responded to concerns from the webinar’s participants around the world.”

According to the panel as an obstacle, perhaps surprisingly, the level of investment required is not high on the list. A lack of uniform regulation across national governments and even within countries is a major block to autonomous vehicle and drone deployment. This, it concluded, is an incidence of regulation and certainly international authorities not keeping pace with commercially driven technological advancement.

However in stating this the panel avoids the realities, the drone attacks on London Gatwick airport and the Saudi oil installations by Yemeni Houthi rebels show just how costly, and indeed deadly, uncontrolled drone technology can be, whilst environmental hazards such as bad weather, winds and high seas affecting drone operation and autonomous ships, and icy and rain-effected roads were seen by the panel as challenges that technology can cope with and the avoidance of human error was greeted as an asset to improving safety.

The panel did however admit to one vulnerability, the weakness against cyber-attacks that is perceived to increase with the use of computer-controlled vehicles is a strong disincentive to adoption, the forum concluded. Yarwood however dismissed it saying that is a particular threat of critical concern across the supply chain in general and autonomous transport with all its ‘environmentally sound and economically tempting characteristics will continue to progress’.

There is no doubt that autonomous vehicles of every mode hold advantages if introduced to certain sectors of the supply chain. As we have seen as sentries and safety and security guards in the rail yards of America to delivering medical supplies to a ship wallowing offshore in a storm there will certainly be niche markets for the variety of technologies.

However whilst a specifically designed warehouse is ideally suited to the introduction of robotic autonomous systems, ideas such as delivering house to house, as we have seen proposed, will require a lot more infrastructure before becoming practical on a large scale (or the drone learns how to open a gate and ring a doorbell).

The webinar prompted a Q&A session from the listeners and an overflow document showing extra questions can be seen HERE.

Readers interested in seeing the breadth of coverage we have given this topic can search the archives simply by going to the News Search facility at the head of any page and entering words such as drones or autonomous.