Category Archives: Automation

Amazon has filed a patent for its drone delivery systems

Amazon teased consumers with drone delivery during a 2017 Super Bowl commercial, though the ad bore a disclaimer: “Prime Air is not available in some states (or any really). Yet.”

Back in December 2016, Amazon made its first successful customer delivery in a trial area in the United Kingdom; in March 2017, the online retail giant completed a test delivery at its invite-only MARS 2017 robotics conference in Palm Springs. Now that it has filed a series of patents for drone delivery systems, Amazon seems to be following through on promises that Prime Air will eventually become a reality.

An old joke says, “You don’t need a parachute to skydive. You only need one if you want to skydive twice.” This logic applies to dropping packages—which could contain any number of fragile products—from the air. Amazon’s latest approved patent reveals a design that incorporates a parachute directly into a package label, according to documents obtained from the U.S. Patent and Trade Office.

Using these labels, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)—or drones—could deploy packages from the air and let them drift safely to the ground. This would reduce delivery times by eliminating the need to land and take off. Packages could even potentially be dropped without the drone stopping, which makes it possible to use multiple types of UAVs instead of just those that can hover and land.

The patent also states that “different sized parachute canopies can be used for different sized shipping container’s descent appropriately to prevent damage to the contents of the shipping container,” suggesting that Amazon would scale the technology for a wide range of package sizes and weights. The patent also describes multiple ways UAVs might carry a parachute-labeled package, including mechanical arms, a suction system, magnets, and retractable shelves.

The retailer also received recent patents for a magnet-based delivery system and a coiled spring model, so it seems likely that the company will use a combination of many technologies to get drone packages on doorsteps.

Amazon continues to wait on Federal Aviation Administration approval before it can complete more widespread Prime Air distribution testing. This process will most likely take several more years, but there is little doubt that the company plans to drop its packages from the skies as soon as it is able.

Story by Jason McDowell @ inbound logistics

Amazon Robots Poised to Revamp How Whole Foods Runs Warehouses

Fetch-Warehouse-Robot

When Amazon.com’s $13.7 billion bid to buy Whole Foods was announced, John Mackey, the grocer’s CEO, addressed employees, gushing about Amazon’s technological innovation.

“We will be joining a company that’s visionary,” Mackey said, according to a transcript of the meeting. “I think we’re gonna get a lot of those innovations in our stores. I think we’re gonna see a lot of technology. I think you’re gonna see Whole Foods Market evolve in leaps and bounds.”

In negotiations, Amazon spent a lot of time analyzing Whole Foods’ distribution technology, pointing to a possible way in which the company sees the most immediate opportunities to reduce costs, said a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because the issue was private. Amazon, through a spokesman, declined to comment, as did Whole Foods.

Experts say the most immediate changes would likely be in warehouses that customers never see. That suggests the jobs that could be affected the earliest would be in the warehouses, where products from suppliers await transport to store shelves, said Gary Hawkins, CEO of the Center for Advancing Retail and Technology, a Los Angeles nonprofit that helps retailers and brands innovate. As Amazon looks to automate distribution, cashiers will be safe — for now.

“The easiest place for Amazon to bring its expertise to bear is in the warehouses, because that’s where Amazon really excels,” Hawkins said. “If they can reduce costs, they can show that on the store shelves and move Whole Foods away from the Whole Paycheck image.”

Amazon sees automation as a key strategic advantage in its overall grocery strategy, according to company documents reviewed by Bloomberg before the Whole Foods acquisition was announced. Whole Foods has 11 distribution centers specializing in perishable foods that serve its stores. It also has seafood processing plants, kitchens and bakeries that supply prepared food to each location. Those are the places where Amazon could initially focus, according to experts.

Amazon has not had the fresh food sales volume to justify big investment in refrigerated warehouses. Whole Foods gives them an incentive to reinvent how groceries get to your store and doorstep.

Brittain Ladd, a supply chain consultant who spent two years working on Amazon’s grocery push, said Amazon may be considering building a network of automated warehouses designed for the grocery business. These would likely be 1 million square feet — large enough to serve Whole Foods and Amazon’s various other grocery initiatives like Amazon Fresh and Prime Pantry — and would utilize robots and automation to reduce labor costs, he said.

“The goal will be to create as advanced a distribution capability as possible to provide customers with exceptional service and the freshest of fresh produce, vegetables, and meat,” Ladd said.

“Amazon will win the battle against Wal-Mart by winning with fresh food. A big challenge for Amazon will be applying its logistics know-how regarding durable, long-lasting products like books, toys and tablets to delicate perishables like strawberries and steaks that have to be handled gingerly, stored at different temperatures and inspected frequently for signs of spoiling.

After automating warehouses, Amazon may bring the robots to the stores. But don’t expect them to replace cashiers immediately. The first ones will likely navigate aisles to check inventory and alert employees when items run low, said Austin Bohlig, an adviser at Loup Ventures, which invests in robotics startups. “These robots can operate alongside people inside a store, but Amazon will want to make absolutely sure they are safe,” he said.

“These robots can operate alongside people inside a store, but Amazon will want to make absolutely sure they are safe,” he said.

Amazon is experimenting with a smaller urban convenience store concept in Seattle called AmazonGo that lets shoppers check in with smartphones, grab what they want and leave without going to a cash register. They are billed automatically based on what they pluck from shelves.

Amazon said it has no plans to introduce that technology to Whole Foods, though a person familiar with the matter said the company is considering eliminating cashiers as part of its long-term grocery strategy. The person asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on private matters.

Amazon has good reason to move slowly with automating tasks now done by people. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, whose 1.3 million members mostly work in supermarkets, has had its eye on Whole Foods for years, said David Pryzbylski, an employment lawyer with Barnes & Thornburg, who has represented supermarkets in union-related cases. Whole Foods has kept unions at bay by paying good wages and avoiding mass layoffs, he said.

“If there’s an environment of uncertainty, like layoffs due to automation, unions can play on that fear,” Pryzbylski said, and make inroads in unionizing the workforce.

Story by Spender Soper and Alex Sherman at Bloomberg News

Uber’s CEO is out: Here’s everything that went wrong with Uber this year

As of early this morning, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is out.

It’s the latest chapter in what has become perhaps the most enticing tech story of the year that, many might argue, begins with the bombshell blog by former Uber engineer Susan Fowler that reveals systemic sexism at Uber.

Things started to sour earlier this year, however. Here’s how it all went down:

Kalanick a lightning rod for Trump criticism

  • December 14: Reports reveal Kalanick is joining Trump’s business advisory board.

If that was a spark, what followed was a forest fire

  • February 19: Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler posts her now-famous blog post detailing sexism within the company.
  • February 20: Uber calls for an internal investigation, known as the “Holder investigation” after former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who’s leading it.
  • February 23: Alphabet’s Waymo unit files a lawsuit against Uber claiming that a former Waymo employee, Anthony Levandowski, stole secrets related to autonomous vehicle technology.
  • February 27: Uber SVP of engineering Amit Singhal leaves the company after it was revealed that he had left Google a year earlier due to a “credible” sexual harassment complaint.
  • February 28: Travis Kalanick apologizes after he’s caught on film arguing with an Uber driver, Fawzi Kamel, about Uber’s new plans to lower fares. “Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own s—. They blame everything in their life on somebody else. Good luck,” Kalanick told his driver.
  • March 3: The New York Times reveals that Uber has been using a feature named “Greyball” that showed people it suspected to be government officials a fake version of the app that would deny them a ride. This was used by Uber to operate in areas where its service was deemed illegal without being caught.

Exodus followed by more scandal

  • March 3: On the same day, Charlie Miller, Uber vice president of product and growth and self-driving senior engineer, leaves the company.
  • March 8: Artificial intelligence labs director Gary Marcus leaves the company.
  • March 16: Self-driving director Raffi Krikorian leaves.
  • March 19: Uber president Jeff Jones departs the company.
  • March 20: Uber’s vice president of maps and business platforms, Brian McClendon, leaves.
  • March 24: Gabi Holzwarth, who dated Kalanick for several years, revealed to The Information that she, Kalanick, and five Uber executives who had traveled to Seoul in 2014 visited an escort bar while there. A female marketing executive who was in the group told Holzwarth later that she felt Uber tried to silence her complaints.
  • May 15: Judge blocks Levandowski from working on any technology related to LIDAR, which is key to the development of Uber’s autonomous vehicles.
  • May 30: Uber fires Levandowski, stating that he didn’t fully cooperate with the court or with helping Uber to prove its case.
  • June 8: Bombshell letter reveals the type of boss Kalanick was. In the letter, dated 2013, Kalanick discusses a company trip to Miami and lays out ground rules for consensual employee sex practices. “Have a great f–king time,” he says.
  • June 1: Uber board meets to begin discussing the findings of the Holder report before it is released to the company. During the meeting, David Bonderman makes sexist remarks about women.

The Holder Investigation report is released

  • June 6: Uber says more than 20 staff members have been fired as part of the internal investigation.
  • June 13: The Holder report is released, and it makes 47 recommendations to help Uber improve its values and workplace environment. Kalanick, who recently lost his mother, decides to step away from the company temporarily. Uber says his duties will be replaced by an independent chair.
  • June 14: The Federal Trade Commission begins looking into Uber’s privacy practices, possibly digging deeper into the company’s “god view” tool and other concerns, according to Recode.
  • June 15: A rape victim filed a lawsuit against Uber after she found out that executives had taken her medical records. The 26-year-old woman was raped by an Uber driver in India in 2014, and the driver was convicted of the crime.

Travis Kalanick resigns

  • June 21: Founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick resigns. “I love Uber more than anything in the world and at this difficult moment in my personal life I have accepted the investors request to step aside so that Uber can go back to building rather than be distracted with another fight,” Kalanick said in a statement obtained by The New York Times.

Story by : Todd Haselton at Cnbc.com

Will Autonomous Ships Be Great ?

Doing away with sailors will make the high seas safer and cleaner. It sounds like a ghost story: A huge cargo vessel sails up and down the Norwegian coast, silently going about its business, without a captain or crew in sight. But if all goes as planned, it’s actually the future of shipping. Last week, Kongsberg Gruppen ASA, a Norwegian maritime technology firm, and Yara ASA, a fertilizer manufacturer, announced a partnership to build the world’s first fully autonomous cargo containership.

Manned voyages will start in 2018, and in 2020 the Yara Birkeland will set sail all on its own. It’s the beginning of a revolution that should transform one of the world’s oldest and most conservative industries — and make global shipping safer, faster and cleaner than ever.
The commercial rationale for autonomous shims has long been clear. The U.S. Coast Guard has estimated that human error accounts for up to 96% of all marine casualties. A recent surge in piracy is a grim reminder that crews remain vulnerable (and valuable) targets for international criminals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the industry is facing a chronic shortage of skilled workers who want a career at sea. By one consultant’s estimate, moreover, carrying sailors accounts for 44% of a ship’s costs.

That’s not just salaries: Crew quarters, air-conditioning units, a bridge (which typically requires heavy ballast to ensure a ship’s balance) and other amenities take up weight and space that otherwise might be used for cargo. And that dead weight contributes to a bigger problem: Maritime shipping accounts for about 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. All this explains why eliminating a crew and its costs has been a longtime goal for companies and governments around the world.

The most advanced effort so far has come from Rolls-Royce Holdings, which rolled out a virtual reality prototype of an autonomous ship in 2014. According to the company, the ship will be 5% lighter, and burn up to 15% less fuel, than a comparable vessel with humans aboard.

That effort has been the subject of considerable skepticism — especially from seafarer unions who doubt that technology can replace experienced sailors, and note that the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency that oversees shipping, prohibits crewless operations. But what seemed impossible three years ago quickly is becoming reality. Most of the sensor technology for autonomous ships now is commercially available, and crucial collision-avoidance tools have been around in various forms since the early 1990s.

The Yara Birkeland is a modest but important step forward. Although it can be operated remotely by a pilot, it will be able to cruise on its own, using an array of sensors, cameras and navigation tools guided by sophisticated algorithms. Back on shore, an operations center will monitor its progress.

When it launches next year, with a fully electric power plant, the ship will transport fertilizer from Yara’s factory to ports about 16 miles away, thereby replacing 40,000 shipments a year that once had been carried by polluting diesel trucks. That short route will give the ship’s owners — along with regulators and other autonomous shipping aspirants — a first chance to see such a vessel in operation.

Such trips may soon become routine. Norway has designated the waters off of Trondheim as a test site for autonomous ships of all kinds, from container vessels to tugs. Earlier this year, Rolls-Royce announced that it expects autonomous containerships in international waters within 15 years. Other groups are working to do it sooner: One U.K. organization plans to have a solar-powered autonomous research vessel cross the Atlantic in 2019. Lloyd’s Register, the 250-year-old ship-classification group, already has issued guidance for crewless operations.

All this could potentially have enormous benefits for the shipping industry. Vast amounts of real-time data from the ships will allow fleet owners to optimize their routes — and profits — based on factors such as maintenance schedules, weather patterns, fuel prices and cargoes. Eventually, fleet owners might find themselves competing with the likes of Amazon.com and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. — major shippers with the big data operations and deep pockets necessary to integrate autonomous ships into their logistics operations.

For those companies, “all hands on deck” already means fingers on a keyboard or a joystick. Within a decade or two, the maritime shipping industry may well be thinking the same way.

Story by Adam Minter at Bloomberg News , published by Transport Topics

Here’s a first look at Uber Freight, Uber’s long-haul trucking venture

Uber’s currently ensnared in a legal battle with Google’s parent company Alphabet over its self-driving car designs, but the ride-hailing behemoth doesn’t seem to be slowing down just yet. The company’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, posted a photo over the weekend of a large semi that appears to be the first look at its long-hauling truck effort, Uber Freight.

As Business Insider reported last fall, Uber Freight stems from the company’s acquisition of Otto, a self-driving truck start-up it purchased for $680 million. (Otto’s founder, Anthony Levandowski, is a former employee of Google has been accused by its self-driving car project of stealing 14,000 autonomous tech designs from the company before he left to launch the start-up. Levandowski has since stepped away from Uber’s autonomous driving endeavors.)

At the time, Business Insider reports, an Uber exec said its intention with Uber Freight was to build a marketplace “that would allow self-driving trucks to flourish.

As The Verge notes, Kalanick’s tweet suggests Uber Freight’s plans now appears to include ambitions to own a fleet of semis—which, of course, would be a costly venture. Still, the project has had some successful public demonstrations; last October, an Otto truck completed a 120-mile beer delivery run. But it’s not clear how many tests have been conducted since. In February, Car & Driver revealed Otto was operating without a permit in California, a familiar point of contention for Uber.

Despite the ostensibly positive news for Uber, the company could face a setback this week: the judge overseeing Uber’s dispute with Google’s self-driving project is expected to decide this week whether to issue a preliminary injunction that could halt Uber’s autonomous vehicle program until the case is completed.

Story by Ryan Felton at Jalopnik

Google Driverless Cars Free To Public In Phoenix

Waymo autonomous Chrysler mini-vanImage copyright Getty Images Image caption Google plans to equip 500 vehicles with its driverless systems

Google is letting people use its driverless car service for any ride at any time.

The search firm’s sister company Waymo has created a free “early rider” programme in Phoenix, Arizona.

Hundreds of families are expected to take part. Waymo has equipped a fleet of 500 minivans with its self-driving technology to handle ride requests.

The company said testers could ride any time across a test zone in Phoenix twice the size of San Francisco.

The test is the first, large-scale public trial of a driverless car system.

Route planner

In a blog John Krafcik, Waymo’s chief executive, said it had been doing small-scale tests of its riding service with a few Phoenix families for the past month.

Now, he said, it wanted more testers, with “diverse backgrounds and transportation needs”.

“We’ll learn things like where people want to go in a self-driving car, how they communicate with our vehicles, and what information and controls they want to see inside,” wrote Mr Krafcik.

Those applying to take part must be over 18 and live inside the large test region, which forms part of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area.

The cars will not be entirely autonomous, as Arizona laws governing the use of autonomous vehicles demand a test driver be behind the wheel to take control in the event of problems or collisions.

Google’s Waymo has been one of the most aggressive developers of autonomous car driving technology and services.

The company’s robot cars have now driven more than 2.5 million miles on public roads without human help.

The cars have also been involved in 14 collisions while logging those miles.

As well as fitting out existing cars with sensing and navigations systems, Waymo has also developed its own small, two-seater vehicles.

For the Phoenix test, Google will use Chrysler Pacifica minivans.

The news of the test project comes a day after the UK announced plans to get driverless cars tested on public roads and motorways by 2019.

It also comes as the Wall Street Journal revealed Amazon has been working on autonomous car services for more than 12 months.

Story by bbc.com