Automated logistics: The future of freight

Automated logistics: The future of freight

By Jorge Hurtado

New technologies are changing the way we transport things. With advances in autonomous control technologies, user interfaces and experiences, smart multimodal communication systems, and more, the logistics industry is changing at a rate that is difficult to predict. The coronavirus pandemic is a good example of how unforeseen forces can have significant effects on an industry, as it has become a major driver of automated logistics technologies that enable more secure and efficient cargo transportation and contactless delivery.

For industry players, it is a significant challenge to anticipate how all of those advances and changing technologies will resolve in the coming years. To that end, the PreScouter team has reviewed and profiled upcoming technologies across the automated logistics space, including UAVs, freight trains, and more. 

Key features of automated logistics systems:

Not surprisingly, automated logistics systems of all types require somewhat similar technological capabilities. Though tailored to the specific applications, the following features are widely present in autonomous freight delivery systems across the board.

Sophisticated control systems:

For a vehicle to move and make decisions autonomously, it must be well-controlled with an intricate system. This system will monitor and act upon communications from both the environment (V2X/V2I) and from other vehicles (V2V), along with information gained from its own systems, which make up a complex network of sensors monitoring all infrastructure, motion, and obstacles around the vehicle.

The processing speed, sophistication, and power required for such a system is high and is made more complex with higher degrees of freedom. For example, an aircraft system is more complicated because the system needs to monitor motion in three dimensions, whereas a car is restricted to a two-dimensional plane.

High efficiency:

Automated logistics systems have a high potential for increased efficiency in many forms over their manual counterparts. Time savings are common across the autonomous freight delivery landscape. For instance, Natilus has developed cargo drones to streamline and hasten delivery services.

Other key aspects of efficiency improvement stem from cost savings. Unmanned aircraft such as Sabrewing’s autonomous heavy-lift cargo vehicles, autonomous trains operated by Rio Tinto, and marine vessels like the car ferries run by an automation system built by Rolls-Royce allow for goods to be transported without staff members, which significantly reduces the operator’s salary payout.

Cooperation and partnerships:

A unique aspect of these technological developments comes in the form of cooperation and partnerships. Matternet, a leader in urban aerial delivery,  is working with CVS and UPS for contactless delivery of prescription medicine to one of the largest retirement communities in the United States to help fight COVID-19. This real-world example would not be possible without government collaboration and partnerships to support all technological aspects.

The future of freight:

Here, we highlight five examples of companies with technologies for automated logistics that represent what the future of freight transport and delivery systems look like.

Matternet – M2 drone for transport of medical products:

Matternet, founded in 2011, is a leader in urban aerial delivery. The first company authorized for urban drone delivery operations in Switzerland, Matternet has entered into a partnership with UPS to implement drone delivery of laboratory samples at California hospitals.

The company’s M2 drone is designed to carry payloads of about 4.5 pounds over distances of up to 12.5 miles. This drone has an easy-to-use interface for sending and receiving packages 24/7/365. It is controlled by using Matternet’s proprietary software platform for operating Matternet networks. A single drone is capable of receiving customer requests, generating routes, and monitoring, commanding, and controlling all operating Matternet assets. The company also has integrated delivery drones to be operated automatically from a payload feeding van. Additionally, the M2 drone has the ability to automatically upload the payload and exchange its battery.

Natilus – Air freight jumbo drones:

Natilus is a drone manufacturing company founded by LZ Zhang, Anatoly Starikov, and Aleksey Matyushev in 2016. The company specializes in the manufacture of Boeing 747 sized drones that provide intercontinental cargo delivery services, helping to reduce air freight costs.

Natilus’s large-scale aircraft drone prototype has a wingspan of 30 feet and a cargo capacity of 700 tons. This drone flies slower than a traditional freighter aircraft, thereby reducing fuel burn by 50% and also eliminating the cost of crew. The key approach of Natilus compared to its competitors, Boeing and Airbus, is to design a large vehicle meant only for air freight.

Natilus air freight drone

 Rendering of Natilus’s large-scale aircraft drone – Courtesy of Natilus

Sebrewing – Unmanned heavy-lift freight airplanes:

Headquartered in Camarillo, California, Sabrewing Aircraft Company manufactures unmanned heavy-lift commercial cargo air vehicles. The company creates innovative technologies at its Dragonworks Lab in Silicon Valley to develop a new era of advanced unmanned cargo aircraft.

Sabrewing uses vertical landing and takeoff technology (VTOL) in its unmanned cargo aircrafts. It offers two different aircraft models: the 800-pound payload “Rhaegal” and the 4,400-pound payload “Wyvern” aircraft. Both come with a turbo-electric propulsion system, which uses a turbine to turn generators that then provide power for electric-adapted fans.

Sabrewing also includes a very robust detect-and-avoid system in the aircraft that provides both navigation and obstacle avoidance in the air. This technology uses turbo-electric engines that, unlike other autonomous vehicles, do not require fuel.

Rolls-Royce – Autonomous cargo ships:

Rolls-Royce and Finnish state-owned ferry operator Finferries have demonstrated the world’s first fully autonomous car ferry, named FALCO, in the archipelago south of the city of Turku, Finland. Rolls-Royce sold its autonomous maritime division to Kongsberg, an international technology company.

The autonomous vessel FALCO is equipped with a range of advanced sensors that allow it to build a detailed picture of its surroundings in real time and with a level of accuracy beyond that of humans. A combination of sensor fusion and artificial intelligence provides the vessel with object detection and collision avoidance for navigation and automated berthing. The situational awareness picture is relayed to Finferries’ remote operating center on land, where a captain monitors the auto operations and can take control of the vessel if necessary.

Rio Tinto – Autonomous freight trains:

Rio Tinto is a leading global mining group with headquarters in London. Rio Tinto’s AutoHaul project successfully achieved a significant milestone with the first delivery of iron ore by an autonomous train in the Pilbara in Western Australia in July 2018.

Each AutoHaul locomotive is fitted with an onboard module that sends automatic reports on its position, speed, and direction of travel to the control center located more than 1,500 km away in Perth, and the locomotives and all public crossings are also fitted with cameras, allowing constant monitoring. The $940-million AutoHaul program is focused on automating trains transporting iron ore to Rio Tinto’s port facilities in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

Rio Tinto operates about 200 locomotives on more than 1,700 km of track in the Pilbara, transporting ore from 16 mines to four port terminals. The network is the world’s first heavy-haul, long distance autonomous rail operation.

This article is based on our report titled “The Future of Transportation: An Autonomous Landscape.”  Access the full report here.

If you have any questions or would like to know if we can help your business with its innovation challenges, please contact us here or email us at

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