Autonomous Terminal Tractor Units (ATs) destined for yard operations are seeing growing investment in 2023, but yards will require comprehensive digital transformations if ATs are to be used effectively. Investment in asset visibility and system orchestration capabilities will be crucial first steps to allow ATs to operate and drive yard efficiency forward.
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Funding for Autonomous and Unmanned Solutions Grow in 2023
As discussed in a recent ABI Insight, “Port of Felixstowe Adds Autonomous Trucks to Drive Container Handling Efficiency and Mitigate Workforce Challenges,” autonomous terminal tractor units (ATs) have seen modest trials and deployments within mixed traffic port operations, but despite the operational similarities, similar deployments have yet to occur within yards. That being said, 1Q 2023 saw strong funding rounds for AT solutions providers, and key partnerships are helping develop the sensing and mechanical requirements for yard trucks to be teleoperated or operated entirely without human intervention.
Recent investments include:
- Outrider: A Colorado-based startup firm focusing on delivering a fully integrated yard system with electric ATs raised an extra US$73 million in January, bringing its total fundraising to US$191 million.
- Phantom Auto: A silicon-valley firm focused on remote operation solutions for logistics saw a US$25 million investment from InfraBridge in April, helping to develop its unmanned yard truck solution.
Partnerships between firms are also being formed to bring ATs to commercial viability, including:
- Fernride, a German company innovating in automated yard logistics through remote drivers, partnered with leading vehicle manufacturer, Terberg Group, in 2021, with a goal to develop an AT certified for commercial production commencing in 2024.
- Autonomous Solutions, Inc. (ASI), Phantom Auto, and FANUC partnered in 2020 to develop ATs augmented with a robotic arm that can autonomously connect and disconnect gladhands (the connecting device between a tractor and trailer).
Limited by Enabling Technologies
Yards have been receiving growing focus from companies across the supply chain, with many realizing the knock-on effects of inefficient yard operations to the facility and onward distribution. When inbound trucks are not processed due to gate house tailbacks or delays to unloading processes, not only is the facilities manufacturing or picking operation impacted, but also the onward transport of goods is delayed, as trucks sit idle waiting to be processed. Roughly 80% of transportation delays have been attributed to delays at the site, and such delays can cost companies millions in lost transport capacity, as well as detention and demurrage fees.
By removing yard jockeys from the process and switching to automated movements, benefits to the yard include:
- Reduction of costs per handled trailer or container
- Enhanced reliability, consistency, and predictability of yard operations with enhanced data analytics
- Mitigation of industry driver shortages
- Reduction in human-related disruptions leading to less downtime and safer operations
As it is with the warehouse automation market, success and viability of the automated equipment relies entirely on the orchestrating systems, enabling tracking technologies, and the nature of the deployed environment. Yards are considerably more unstructured than a warehouse, and many of the system and asset visibility advancements that are enabling warehouse automation have not been adapted to yard environments.
When trailers or goods are scanned in a yard, normally through Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), the scanning location is often not where the asset will end up, and yards often don’t have as rigid storage processes as their adjacent facilities. While companies have been prospecting both advanced RFID solutions and Bluetooth Low Energy beacons, most have faced the issue of high costs, given the number of beacons required to track all asset movements, and the need for collective buy-in from external stakeholders.
There is a drive from Yard Management System (YMS) providers to deliver complete yard visibility, but end users still feel that systems alone are not offering complete tracking. Where the Warehouse Management, Execution, and Control System (WMS, WES, and WCS) space has developed to provide autonomous orchestration, yard solutions remain limited.
Tackling Visibility and System Challenges First
Increasing uptake of YMSs is a crucial first step in bringing yards digitally up to speed, but wider investment in fleet telematics and asset tracking to create a more granular data feed will be key to deploying effective AT fleets. Fleet telematics not only provides live locations for trailers in the yard, but can also provide the YMS with updates on expected arrival times. The system is then provided with a real-time insight into trailer movements to better allocate ATs, helping to orchestrate and allocate tasks in the most efficient way.
Also, as YMSs are incorporated alongside WMSs and Transport Management Systems (TMSs), vendors must ensure an interoperability that removes any potential data silos. Tracking goods as they move from warehouse to yard to truck, or vice versa, is essential for true end-to-end visibility, and any material handling equipment moving between these nodes must be providing a live data feed to ensure that assets are not lost by system transfer. Once this has been achieved, orchestrating AT movements that work in unison with the inbound and outbound movements of goods around them becomes more viable.
Given AT’s nascency, a helping hand when finding immediate use cases and smoothing the transition into the market is to partner with operators that can advise and support the rollout into areas of yard operations that are more suited to autonomous or unmanned support. InfraBridge’s investment in Phantom Auto is significant in this respect, as InfraBridge is also a major investor in ConGlobal, the largest operator of rail terminals in North America with more than 700 vehicles. ConGlobal’s involvement in the deployment process is allowing the solution to be directed into verticals and areas where labor shortages are most prevalent and has helped identify where unmanned solutions will be most beneficial to both operations and the workforce.
ATs present high potential efficiencies to yards, but end users and solution providers must ensure the enabling technologies are in place for AT rollout success. Effective system implementation and real-time data feeds will not only help create a digital structure to yards that will lay the foundations for adopting autonomy, but also begin to relieve more immediate challenges facing yard operations today.