Automation is poised to be the defining theme of the 2020s. The time is now because of the confluence of advancements in deep learning, information collection via powerful sensors, and hardware able to calculate real-time judgments on that information to act on it.
Despite the promise of automation, applications of automated technology each suffer from unique constraints. Autonomous vehicles, one of the most exciting use cases for automation, must deal with an endless number of complex situations created by highly unpredictable open world environments. Given the catastrophic downside of AV failure, development of AVs has been deliberate, and level 4/5 autonomy for consumers is still a long way from reality.
Industrial automation, on the other hand, is one of the more advanced sectors of autonomy. Industrial environments are controlled — many industrial automation applications operate separately from humans while others, like cobots, are built to work alongside people. Controlled environments mean fewer variables for software to process. Instead, industrial automation applications face more of a hardware problem. It is difficult to create robots capable of performing the full extent of human labor. Robotic arms need to be built with end effectors specific to a task. Warehouse robots can move products, but face limitations on picking and sorting. Cobots must be limited in force output to reduce danger to the humans that work alongside them. This means that specific industrial functions can be automated but it’s difficult to automate the entire environment.
Given opposing constraints — complex software requirements given uncontrolled environments for AVs and limitations of hardware for industrial automation — combining the two applications of autonomy creates a compelling way to build a safer, more efficient industrial environment.
That’s exactly what Outrider does.
Outrider creates distribution yard operations of the future with a fully autonomous electric yard truck, management software, and site infrastructure – a complete system. It’s also one of our portfolio companies.
Outrider’s system allows yard trucks to operate without human intervention, moving trailers to and from loading docks while connecting to and disconnecting from the trailers fully autonomously. The marriage between a controlled industrial environment and autonomous vehicles is a match made in heaven.
Since a distribution yard is a controlled environment by nature, an autonomous system doesn’t need to understand the nearly infinite set of possible interactions in the open world, but rather a limited set of interactions in the controlled industrial environment. Distribution yards can integrate sensors through the yard to send information to autonomous industrial vehicles about changes in the environment. Distribution yards can also be rebuilt for human safety by limiting pathways where humans may come into contact with automated vehicles. Building this type of infrastructure for AVs to operate in the real world would be impractical for both cost and implementation reasons.