ISEE brings autonomy to shipyards with autonomous container trucks – TechCrunch
Robotaxis may still be a few years old, but there are other industries that can be transformed by autonomous vehicles as they are today. MIT spin-off ISEE has identified one in the joint shipping yard, where containers are sorted and stored – today by a diminishing supply of human drivers, but tomorrow maybe by the yard truck. robotics specially designed by the company. With new funding and partnerships with major shippers, the business may be on the verge of going big.
Shipyards are the buffer zone for the logistics industry. When a container is unloaded from a ship that is full of it, it cannot stay exactly there on the quay where the crane dropped it. Maybe it’s time sensitive and needs to be transported right away; maybe he has to go through customs and inspections and has to stay in the establishment for a week; maybe it’s refrigerated and needs electrical hookups and air.
Each of these situations will be handled by a professional driver, hooking the container to a short-haul truck and driving it the hundred or thousand meters to its place, an empty spot with an electrical outlet, long-term storage, easy access for inspection, etc. But like many jobs in logistics, it is increasingly facing a labor shortage as fewer and fewer people register each year. The work, after all, is quite repetitive, not particularly easy, and of course heavy equipment can be dangerous.
ISEE co-founders Yibiao Zhao and Debbie Yu said they identified the logistics industry as an area in need of more automation, and these container parks in particular. “Working with customers, it’s surprising how dated their yard operation is – it’s basically people screaming,” Zhao said. “There is a great opportunity to take this to the next level. “
ISEE trucks are not fully customized vehicles, but yard trucks of a familiar type, equipped with lidar, cameras and other sensors to give them 360 degree awareness. Their job is to haul containers (unmodified, it’s important to note) to and from yard locations, backing the trailer 50 feet into a parking spot with as little as a foot of parking space. each side.
“A customer adopts our solution like hiring another driver,” Zhao said. No safe zone is required, no additional considerations need to be taken into account in the yard. ISEE trucks navigate the yard intelligently, navigate obstacles, slow down for passing workers, and make room for other trucks, whether autonomous or human. Unlike many machines and industrial vehicles, these rely on the current state of autonomous driving in order to stay safe and drive as carefully as possible in mixed and unpredictable traffic.
The advantage of an automated system over a human driver is particularly pronounced in this environment. A rather unusual limitation for yard truck drivers is that since the driver’s seat is on the left side of the cab, they can also only park trucks on the left since that is the only side they can see enough. good. ISEE trucks have no such limitations, of course, and can park easily in either direction, which has apparently blown the minds of human drivers.
Efficiency is also improved thanks to the machine’s infallible spirit. “There are hundreds, if not thousands of containers in the yard. Humans spend a lot of time scouring the yard for assets because they can’t remember where they are, ”Zhao explained. But of course a computer never forgets, and so no gas is wasted walking around the yard looking for a container or a place to put one.
Once parked, another ISEE technician can also make the necessary connections for electricity or air, a step that can be dangerous for human drivers in poor conditions.
The robotic platform also offers consistency. Human drivers are not that good when they are trainees, and take a few years to get used to, Yu noted. “We have learned a lot about efficiency,” she said. “This is essentially what matters most to customers; the supply chain depends on the flow.
To that end, she said moderating speed has been an interesting challenge – it’s easy for the vehicle to go faster, but you have to be aware that you can slow down if necessary, not just when there is an obstacle. , but when there are things like blind spots that need to be walked with care.
It’s actually a perfect training ground for developing autonomy, and that’s kind of the idea.
“Today’s robots operate with very predefined rules in very constrained environments, but in the future self-driving cars will drive in open environments. We see this technological gap, how to enable robots or autonomous vehicles to cope with uncertainty, ”Zhao said.
“We needed a relatively free environment with complex human behaviors, and we found that it was actually a perfect marriage, the flexible autonomy that we offer and the court,” he continued. “It’s private land, there are no regulations, all vehicles stay there, there are no children or random people, no long tail like a public road or a busy street. . But it’s not simple, it’s complex like most industrial environments – it’s crowded, busy, there are pedestrians and trucks coming in and out.
Although this is an MIT spinoff company with a solid foundation in computer vision articles and research, it is not a theoretical venture. ISEE is already working with two large shippers, Lazer Spot and Maersk, which represent hundreds of jobsites and some 10,000 trucks, many or most of which could potentially be automated by ISEE.
So far, the company has moved beyond the pilot stage and is working with Maersk to put several vehicles into active service at a construction site. The Maersk Growth Fund has also invested an undisclosed amount in ISEE, and the possibility of an acquisition is being detected in the near future. But the plan for now is simply to expand and refine the technology and services and broaden the lead between ISEE and all potential competitors.