The robot is coming

The time has come when robots are getting smart enough to take over simple tasks from people. Also in the logistics sector. Although we haven’t reached a stage yet where robots can be deployed everywhere. Logistics is a tricky field for robots to master.

The container cranes at Maasvlakte 2 in the port of Rotterdam are unmanned and practically fully automated. Robots, with a height of more than 125 metres.

Welcome to the Port of Rotterdam, at the automated RWG terminal. The APMT and RWG container terminals at Maasvlakte 2 are the world’s most automated terminals, operating largely autonomously, and with remote operators. Niels Dekker of the RWG container terminal: “Over the past ten years, the container business has seen an enormous expansion. Ships have become bigger and carry more containers. To ensure we can continue to handle them fast and efficiently, a terminal such as ours has been designed.” The terminal was opened only recently, but has a capacity of 2.35 million TEU.

Drone ships

The driving force behind an automated terminal is artificial intelligence: the creation of devices that exhibit (human) intelligence. This comes in various shapes and sizes. In shipping, innovation manifests itself in developments such as unmanned and remote-controlled vessels. Engineering concern Rolls-Royce for instance, is developing cargo vessels that don’t need a crew and are controlled from land, so-called ‘drone ships’. That can be safer, cheaper and more efficient than crew-manned vessels.

At the RWG terminal nearly everything is automated. For instance: ships are loaded and unloaded by automatic cranes. “We have remote process operators, working from an office. They monitor a crane’s movements,” Niels Dekker says. A crane lifts a container and loads it onto an automated vehicle. “These are our AGVs; they transport containers to the storage area. They are also unmanned and fully automated. They even know when their battery is almost empty: they then drive to the battery swap station where a robot equips them with a new battery.”

Our AGVs even know when their battery is almost empty: they then drive to the battery swap station where a robot equips them with a new battery.

Niels Dekker, RWG

Robotics and computer systems therefore play an increasingly bigger role across the logistics sector. Markus Kückelhaus is Vice President Innovation & Trend Research at logistics company DHL, operating in more than 220 countries. “There is an enormous shift in how people feel about robots. Recently, companies have started to show an interest; finding investors has become easier.” For example, in the first five months of 2015 investments in robots exceeded total investments in 2014.

“The times are changing now. However, we won’t be moving to a fully automated sector all at once between now and three years from now; it will happen gradually, step by step. The first robots will mainly support people in their tasks.”

11 to 24 kilometres

The advantages of robots are evident. They eliminate tasks that are dangerous, don’t mind doing work that is dull or repetitive, and are more efficient, more accurate and stronger than people could ever be. Kückelhaus: “It has been calculated that warehouse workers walk about 11 to 24 kms per shift. If robots could bring the products to them, they wouldn’t need to walk that much themselves.”

Today, 80 per cent of the warehouses in the world are still mainly operated by people. DHL is a front runner in making them more automated. Kückelhaus: “15 per cent of our warehouses are being operated mechanically.”

Having a robot move parcels around and unload vessels, how hard can it be? “Quite hard,” Kückelhaus says. “The product is the tricky factor here: cargo comes in various sizes and weights. People are good at distinguishing between types of cargo, and deciding how much force is needed to lift a parcel. But so far, it has been hard to teach a computer to do this. Car manufacturers for instance, use robots for repetitive tasks such as tightening a screw. But in logistics it differs per parcel.” For logistics purposes, you could design a specific robot for a specific client who always ships a specific parcel, but if the contract with this client is terminated you would have a useless robot on your hands.

And there are more challenges to tackle before the robot can become a success in logistics. Kückelhaus: “Logistics involves transport: they have to be able to move. To do this, they have to understand what kind of environment they are operating in, so that for instance they do not bump into everything. Fortunately, the number of innovations in the field of camera technology and sensors is increasing, so that robots are learning to identify what sort of product is in front of them.”

Ports are the ideal testing grounds for robots. It is a controlled area with lots of space.

Markus Kueckelhaus, DHL

Robot Sawyer

DHL is now experimenting with robot Sawyer, of Rethink Robotics. “This is a collaborative robot that works together with people. It also learns by copying people: we move its arms and that helps it understand what is being asked.” The robot is still in a testing stage.

Robot Sawyer of Rethink Robotics

Many of the new innovations involving artificial intelligence and robots originate from start-ups. “Start-ups are a source of creativity and as such they also inspire existing companies that focus on innovation,” says Emile Hoogsteden, director Containers, Breakbulk and Logistics of the Port of Rotterdam. “That is why, as the Port of Rotterdam Authority, we try to attract start-ups and to help their further development by investing in accelerator programmes, funds and locations to settle.” In March of last year for instance, the Port of Rotterdam Authority and YES!Delft launched the Port Innovation Lab programme. “Nine port start-ups are currently working on making their business ideas scalable.”

In fact, ports are the ideal testing grounds for robots, Markus Kückelhaus explains. “It is a controlled area with lots of space. So you have the advantage of being able to set the conditions for a robot yourself. This is totally different for self-driving cars for instance, which will have to use the existing road network.”

Yet, it will still be a while before we’ll see robots across the logistics sector. Kückelhaus: “Today’s robots can mainly perform simple tasks. Think of robots that can vacuum your house, or mow your lawn automatically. In logistics, it will be the same: the first robots will probably learn how to clean warehouses.” He estimates that it might be another 5 to 10 years before we can let them perform really complex tasks. “But you know how it was with the mobile phone”, says Kückelhaus. “Twenty years ago, no one had ever heard of a smartphone. Now, our children cannot imagine a world without it. The next generation will most likely feel that way about robots.”

Robotics: this article is part 2 of a series of articles about innovations that may influence the future of the port and the transport sector. Editorial offices are free to use these articles, videos and infographics. You can download them here.

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