Daimler backs road drones

The question of drones will not go away and it is difficult to know if it tells us more about change in the logistics sector or in the wider economy.

The latest development is from the German car and truck maker, Daimler. It has invested in a UK based drone designer called ‘Starship’, run from Estonia by some former Skype executives. Physically Starship’s engineering is distinct from most of the other experiments in drone technology in that the drones are ground vehicles. Resembling a totebox with wheels they have the ability to drive and navigate themselves. The batteries powering the vehicles last for around 60 minutes.

Starship’s vision includes the option of local retailers using the vehicles to deliver goods to customers. Of course, another possibility is for last-mile and express logistics operators to use them for home-delivery. Conceivably it could be a form of motorised PUDO capability.

The advantage of this over airborne drones is practicality and safety. Moving at 4mph the vehicle is designed to move around urban areas with only minimal supervision. Starship hopes that trials will begin this month in London. The company claims that these trials will include participation by large retailers, delivering purchases to real customers, as opposed to just simulations.

Of course, such technology could have major implications for last-mile delivery activity. This is what Daimler is trying to envision with its proposals for semi-automated vans acting a launch-pads for both flying-drones and Starship’s vehicles.

That Daimler is investing in such a company is also an indication of how worried vehicle manufacturers are by the threat that digital technologies may have for their businesses. Automotive engineering is fundamentally old-fashioned, relying on concepts in mechanical engineering that date back to the seventeenth century. They are overdue for a change. However, the impact of such changes would be enormous. New materials, technology and products would transform the automotive sector, including its huge logistics activities. The automotive manufacturers do not know quite how to respond and so some are simply looking at any alternative that comes along, including the likes of Starship. It is a major warning to the logistics sector that the speed of change is increasing and its impact on many logistics service providers may not be too far off.

Source: Transport Intelligence, January 26, 2017

Author: Thomas Cullen