The Challenge: Amazon has filed a number of patents covering “Drone Delivery” but realistically it begins with “There’s done carrying a box” and the patents mostly deal with how the drone gets to where it’s going and how/where to drop it. That leaves a wide range of questions unanswered, like “how did the box get attached to the drone?” If we look ahead to the real delivery system we have to start answering much harder questions starting with when the box comes off the retail center shelf, going through multiple cycles of loading onto a truck or container, shipping across a city, state, or country, unloading from the container, storing it somewhere until it’s ready to go out, then loading it onto the drone for the “last mile” excursion. What is needed is a single system architecture that enables this complete end-to-end solution.
The Opportunity: Drobotics technology provides a comprehensive solution to the delivery of packages by automated vehicle. It covers the processes, controls, and robotic vehicles that combine to safely automate package delivery from user drop-off to user-pickup without human intervention, including automated shelving, loading and unloading, box transfer robots, trucks, containers, and aerial and road delivery platforms. There are a number of unique capabilities and architectures that make it a viable commercial alternative to the Amazon patent without (we believe) violating its claims.
We start with a box grasping mechanism. Utilizing proven techniques from the paper handling industry, we can construct a grasping mechanism that has the benefits of:
- Can be used for plastic reusable containers or cardboard boxes.
- Can fit standardized containers or randomly sized boxes within a defined range. Then different size ranges can be defined as well to cover a very wide range of random-sized boxes.
- Automatically tests the “hold” on the box to ensure safe transport.
- Requires no human intervention.
Once we have defined the grasping mechanism, the next question is transport – how does one move a box from one location to another? In the Amazon commercials they show a little scissor lift loading a box up into the belly of a drone. That still leaves a lot of questions – how did the box get on the scissor lift? Once it lifts it up, how does it get pushed back into the drone so it doesn’t fall right out the doors? You can’t close the doors while the scissor lift is there, and you can’t drop the lift unless something has moved or grasped the box. Unless the box is grasped at the top of the lift, it has to be moved in and out of another location in the bay, and the existence of a grasping mechanism is never specified.
In Drobotics technology, since we started with the grasping mechanism, everything else gets easier. Drobots are computers that move things. So it doesn’t matter to the drobot whether it’s a wheeled vehicle, a flying vehicle, or even something as simple as an intelligent storage shelf. The next layer of the technology, then, is the boxtroll.
The boxtroll is a small wheeled vehicle that has the simple capability of grasping a box with the pre-defined mechanism and moving it from one place to another. All of the boxtrolls are controlled with the same drobotic technology as everything else, i.e. a trackpath cooperatively generated by a 4D autorouter. This allows for an overall logistics control system to coordinate and control any hierarchy of movement from within an assembly plant or order fulfillment center all the way to coast-to-coast or international movement of a box from the moment it is dropped off to the instant of pickup at the other end.
The second Drobot in the logistics chain is the intelligent shelving unit. This unit autonomously reconfigures shelving units of arbitrary height (all the way up to the storage building’s ceiling) , accepts them at floor level from a box troll, and then presents the right box – at floor level – to the boxtroll for pickup at the right time.
Finally, another critical Drobotic innovation is the Drone Carrier. A carrier is any vehicle where a drone physically attaches and detaches autonomously so that two or more vehicles work together to perform a particular mission. For example, it makes little sense to send 5 packages out 5 miles on 5 different drones, when you can put 20 packages into a carrier and have it do the major transport leg, with just a couple of delivery drones then used to drop off packages at the 5 mile point. It doesn’t matter if the carrier is ground or air based, the principle still applies.
To illustrate how Drobotic technology now works to solve all of these logistics chain problems in one simple platform, we will look at the package delivery application as an example.
We begin with an order fulfillment warehouse. We will not consider the mechanics of how all of the ordered materials are fetched and put into the box other than it’s certainly true that Drobotic technology could be applied to this application space as well. Either way we can consider it an already solved problem. Once the box comes off of the assembly line and it is given its destination address sticker and machine readable encoding (barcode or QR code for example), the logistics system server is ready, already having been informed by the order processing system that a box of given dimensions and weight will be processed for the given destination address, and will be available within a given time window. The logistics server will have already calculated the trackpath for a boxtroll to pick up the package when it hits the floor, and move it to an open spot in the automatic shelving system. In a real-time environment there would be a small queue of boxtrolls awaiting the production line, but not that many as they are timed for the production schedule. The number of waiting boxtrolls is primarily dependent on the width of the given production window. Once the boxtroll delivers the package to the autonomous storage unit, that unit prepares for the next box going in or out, and the boxtroll is given its next assignment by the logistics server. Because paths are cooperatively planned by the 4D autorouter, hundreds of boxtrolls and storage units are all working simultaneously to keep the product moving. The system can be arranged hierarchically such that one logistics server is tasked with just the mechanics of this particular warehouse, and then the next level of the hierarchy is controlling movement within given regions, and another layer handles interstate transport logistics and another level handles intercontinental transport.
In most cases, the box that was just prepared for Mr. Smith will be transported from this facility to another distribution warehouse by the most economical or time suitable means such as truck, air freight, shipping, or rail. In any of these cases, a shipping container or specifically outfitted truck is utilized which also has autonomous shelving units installed. This allows the logistics server to pre-plan the packing sequence of the truck package by package ensuring optimal use of space and loading time. Once the truck is allocated a loading time, the shelving units and box trolls go into cooperative action to pick up each package in order and deliver it to the shelving unit in the transport container. Once complete the truck rolls out to its destination.
When it arrives at the destination, the local logistics server performs the opposite task, unloading the freight container from the storage system and moving the packages into its own autonomous shelving unit. If the box is due for delivery from this location, it may be moved directly to the delivery loading queue. In other cases this may be just one of any number of loading and unloading cycles handled by the overall logistics server. In each case the server system always knows exactly where each box is in the storage system every moment, with no humans to make mistakes or otherwise impede the flow of the system.
Once Mr. Smith’s box reaches its delivery distribution center, the logistics system still has a number of choices to affect the final delivery. In one case, the user may be notified that the package can be picked up at a given warehouse or storefront automated facility. Indeed, the user, when notified of an incoming package, may be able to choose the delivery location and method that is most convenient for a particular place and time. If the package is to be picked up at the distribution center, for example, it would be stored in the shelving system until the user swipes his ID at the automated distribution panel (like a bank ATM) and a boxtroll is dispatched by the system to receive the box from the shelving system and transport it to the dispenser. To provide safety for the general public, not all locations are going to be amenable to dropping off a package by drone or other autonomous vehicle. In this case we (and Amazon) envisage a kiosk being available in convenient locations, much like practically every corner used to have a phone booth before cellular service. These kiosks could be anything from phone booth size to small storefronts and would similarly act like the distribution center in that they have their own autonomous shelving unit and the drones would drop the package into the top of the unit, away from humans, and it would be provided to the dispenser doorway upon identification of the pickup addressee. With drobotic technology, however, this portal becomes two-way in that the user can just as easily drop off a package and pay for it as pick one up. When a drone is dropping off a package, it’s now empty and a perfect vehicle to pick up any at the same time, doubling the efficiency of the kiosk system. With cooperative logistics planning, if the package is intended for another kiosk within the same city, for example, it can be routed there directly from one kiosk to another without ever hitting the distribution center, increasing efficiency even further.
This example shows how a complete logistics chain for everything from a small box to a forklift sized industrial machine can be accomplished from production line to customer delivery with no human intervention through one simple platform.