An EU-funded project may have found the key to making urban freight transport more environmentally sustainable and more convenient for the e-consumer with the help of an innovative robotic vehicle and transport system.
Nearly 50% of EU citizens shop online. Numbers for commercial customers are slightly lower, but 37% of businesses in the EU-28 purchased electronically in 2012. Many of them could in the future benefit from the FURBOT system, ensuring environmentally friendly, timely and consumer-friendly shipping.
The FURBOT vehicle – a mobile robot-come-van-come-forklift – is powered by electricity and thus does not add to urban air and noise pollution. It is large enough to carry two EU-pallet-sized boxes with a maximum height of 170 cm and a total maximum load of 1 t.
The project consortium designed a novel robotic handling system, which allows the automatic loading and unloading of boxes in urban areas.
Sensors ensure safety
One of the concerns surrounding automated robotic vehicles is, of course, safety. To address this, FURBOT is equipped with a set of sensors to scan the internal state of the vehicle as well as the environment surrounding it. In addition, a driving assistance system, which includes emergency braking, avoiding obstacles, parking and itinerary assistance, as well as adaptive speed control, ensures further protection.
The vehicle’s active suspension system, which controls the vertical movement of the wheels relative to the chassis, means that it is possible to align the loading bed with the plane the freight is on.
Specially designed modular boxes complete the system. Depending on which goods need to be delivered where, one large FURBOT box without compartments could be used to ship a larger order to a shop, for instance, and would be deposited very close-by.
For private e-consumers, on the other hand, the box would have an individual compartment, similar to a pack station, where parcels and packages are placed in large post-office boxes in a fixed location.
The FURBOT would transport the box – filled with shipments to various recipients in the same neighbourhood – to one of several unloading bases, ideally located close to that day’s specific delivery addresses. This would make the FURBOT system much more flexible and targeted than the conventional pack station. The recipients would receive a message with the collection point address and a PIN to access their order.
As an e-commerce user herself, project coordinator Elvezia Cepolina of the University of Pisa is convinced of the concept’s advantages. “When I order something online, I’m usually not home when it’s delivered. So, I tend to have all my orders shipped to my grandparents, and then I have to go there to collect them,” she says.
“To my mind, the pack station idea is great because it responds to changes in society,” Cepolina adds. “The FURBOT project, however, takes the idea one step further because the boxes are not fixed in one location and change according the needs of the moment.”
While it may still take a while before FURBOT starts delivering the goods, a field test is planned for the end of 2015 in the municipality of Barreiro in Portugal.