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Automated vehicle goods delivery to leap forward in 2017

Don Wall
Automated vehicle goods delivery to leap forward in 2017

The new year will see the dawn of a new era in automated goods transport, with new Canadian drone regulations coming in the spring, the first large-scale drone delivery service set to begin operations in Canada and automated vehicle (AV) ground transportation of goods continuing to ramp up around the world.

Unlike passenger AVs, which will develop incrementally over the next couple of decades, goods movement by AVs is here now, Arizona State University professor David King told an audience at a transportation conference held in Toronto in November. King described six-wheeled beer-cooler-shaped automated wagons currently delivering packages along sidewalks in Washington, D.C. and said the marketplace for automated delivery on the ground will soon be causing significant disruption to suburban neighbourhoods and city streets.

Asked how the construction sector will contribute as urban AV goods movement develops, King urged new visions for designing and building streets and sidewalk infrastructure, better co-ordination of ground transportation by the public and private sectors and a new pricing regime that will ensure businesses that benefit from using public spaces pay for the privilege.

"We really need to think about our sidewalks, our airspace and our local streets," said King, who discussed commercial AV trends in a follow-up interview after he spoke at the Transport Futures conference. "I don’t think it’s desirable to have robots driving around our sidewalks delivering packages. Sidewalks should be reserved for people. That is something that we have to have regulations for."

Residential streets — including the current engineering specifications for the roadbed — are not designed for the increased commercial traffic that King said is coming. He sees an explosion of local deliveries, with, for example, grocery stores sending out refrigerated trucks to park curbside from which one operator will send out automated deliveries to customers who might start to order one item at a time as deliveries become cheaper.

"There will be competition at the curb," he said. "Curb space is a fixed asset."

Engineers will have to figure how they are going to design delivery platforms for apartment and office buildings and also multi modal delivery facilities to accommodate increasing goods delivery, said King. Dedicated lanes for AV deliveries should be considered, he added.

"Thinking of parking, we should price parking at the curb. We need to make space for AVs and goods movement, especially in the context of trying to add in bike lanes and non-motorized travel."

King added, "It is one thing for us as a society to say we are going to subsidize all transportation because the transportation network is complex and we want people to get around. But when it’s a private firm that’s making money out of delivering, the argument for subsidizing gets very, very difficult."

Addressing commercial use of airspace, King mentioned drone delivery of pizzas as an early adopter of AV technology now in operation, and there are other examples worldwide with Amazon and the French postal service announcing drone testing programs. In Canada, the first commercial drone delivery service, called Drone Delivery Canada (DDC), recently announced Staples and NAPA Auto Parts as new customers and said it expected commercialization in 2017.

DDC CEO Tony Di Benedetto said that drone delivery will require very little bricks and mortar style infrastructure.

"What we are doing is building a technical platform and our platform is outfitted in our clients’ locations," he said.

DDC will launch from its customers’ existing shipping sites, with a "mission control" based at its two Toronto-area offices co-ordinating "payloads" of five, seven or 10 pounds through a system of servers and communications networks. DDC has developed its own pilot logic system to fly the drones and so far has signed up some 40 clients in total.

Transport Canada has test sites in two rural areas, in Foremost, Alta. and Alma, Que., to test "beyond visual line of sight" flights, and Di Benedetto said the drone marketplace will grow in rural Canada first as a select number of commercial operators qualify for Special Flight Operations Certificates from Transport Canada, similar to airlines. Transport Canada has already announced significant unmanned air vehicle (drone) regulations and recently indicated it would be improving regulations for drone operators in spring 2017 that will permit operators to fly closer to built-up areas and smaller aerodromes, among other regulations.

Flight paths will be carefully regulated, said Di Benedetto; the firm’s website refers to railways in the sky.

"It is a predefined flight path like a rail," he said. "Our vehicle travels to and from the customer along this rail, dropping off and bringing back goods in a controlled manner, which the government wants to see.

"What the government doesn’t want to see is rogue drones. It is all about safety in the government’s eyes."

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