Robots Continue to Drive Innovation in Modern Transportation
Robots are already far more widespread than many people realize. They’re now essential to many industries, unlocking new opportunities and avenues for innovation. One of the sectors that stands to gain the most from robots is transportation.
Outside of manufacturing, the implementation of robotics in transportation is a relatively recent phenomenon. Despite this relative novelty, robots have already made significant strides in the transportation industry, driving innovation across multiple sub-sectors and applications. Modern transportation wouldn’t be the same without robots, and the future will only serve to solidify this.
Here’s how robots are pushing the transportation industry forward and where they could go from here.
Perhaps the most iconic example of robots driving innovation in transport is self-driving cars. While fully autonomous vehicles are not yet a reality, automated features have already brought significant improvements to cars today. Automatic braking, lane correction, and adaptive cruise control are all examples of robotic control in today’s vehicles.
Automatic emergency braking has cut rear collisions by 50% in cars that have it. These systems rely on robotic technologies like machine vision to recognize and respond to obstacles. They then turn the entire vehicle into a type of robot, acting without human input.
The only things holding back fully autonomous cars today are robotic technologies that are not yet advanced enough. Their artificial intelligence (AI) systems have to respond remarkably quickly, even for a robot, and perform consistently in varying and unpredictable situations. As robots advance and these goals become possible, true self-driving cars will become a daily reality.
Autonomous Public Transport
While fully robotic passenger vehicles have proved a challenge, automating public transit may be easier. Buses, trains, and shuttles follow fixed routes, providing the predictability that robots today need to perform well. They also typically travel in dedicated spaces, reducing the risk of collision with other vehicles.
The city of Bad Birnbach, Germany, started testing an autonomous bus in 2017. Within the first year, it had completed more than 10,000 kilometers of driverless travel, carrying around 20,000 passengers. EasyMile, the company that made the autonomous shuttle, has since helped cities across the globe establish driverless bus routes.
In 2019, an autonomous train pulled 30 freight cars across 48 miles of track, showing the potential of driverless trains. As the U.S. looks to expand and modernize its rail system, autonomous trains could become commonplace. AI features like early braking could make rail travel safer, too.
While autonomous vehicles may be the most exciting application of robots in transportation, they’re far from the only one. A more common use case for robotics in the transport industry is in the manufacturing centers that build vehicles. Automation has become a critical part of car manufacturing, enabling higher output.
The Tesla Gigafactory leads the industry in robotics use, with some sections being 90% automated, requiring almost no human input. This high level of automation lets the factory produce its technologically complex vehicles in record time to meet high demand. Considering how the Tesla Cybertruck sold more than 250,000 preorders in its first month, that speed is essential.
Faster production times also let automakers roll out new models in less time. As a result, they can produce innovative, cutting-edge designs and get them in drivers’ hands while the idea is still new and exciting.
This reliance on automation in transportation manufacturing also enables factories to become more sustainable. Robots may take energy to operate, but they also let facilities take more control over the power they consume. These robotic systems produce data about their efficiency and energy use as they work, guiding process improvements to minimize energy waste.
Newer robots can even adjust their operations automatically to use as little energy as possible. Software robots can go a step further, analyzing factory data to produce insights into how to become more sustainable. Automakers can then minimize their environmental footprint as much as possible.
Becoming more sustainable is essential for the transportation industry. The average car produces more than 2 tons of carbon dioxide every year, giving the sector much room to improve. These process improvements on the manufacturing side of the industry help it make up for its history of carbon emissions.
Software robots may not be what comes to mind when people think of “robotics,” but they’re some of the most valuable robotics applications. These AI programs have proven particularly helpful in the logistics sector of transportation. By feeding data into software robots, supply chains have become far more efficient in the past few years.
Some AI logistics programs analyze more than 250 million data points across millions of shipping transactions. With this data, they produce insights into how logistics companies can optimize their loads, routes, and outsourcing to save time and money. Similar systems adjust drivers’ navigation in real-time to produce the most efficient delivery routes possible.
Physical robots help improve logistics efficiency, too. Automated systems can work alongside humans to load and unload trucks in far less time than an entirely manual process. As both physical and software robots improve, freight transportation will become increasingly efficient.
Some of the ways robotics improve transportation are less direct. For example, one of the most innovative but less publicized use cases for robots in transport is road maintenance. Researchers have recently developed automated systems that can help detect and repair roads, helping governments improve infrastructure more efficiently.
In 2019, scientists designed a drone that can detect road damage, showing relevant authorities where to target their repair efforts. One U.K.-based company is developing a robot that can detect and fix potholes and cracks, automating the entire repair process. With advancements like this, roadways can become safer, faster.
Employing these robots will improve the performance of other transportation robotics, too. Self-driving vehicles will have an easier time navigating on roads that are in good condition.
Robots Are Integral to the Future of Transportation
Whether the public realizes it or not, robots have become a critical part of the transportation sector. From manufacturing to logistics to passenger transport, robotics have influenced and continue to influence every aspect of transportation. As these technologies drive further innovation, they will become inseparable from the industry.
In many ways, robots will drive the future of transportation. If current trends continue, all sub-sectors of transport will rely on various types of robotics in the near future. Before long, it will be difficult to imagine the transportation sector without robots.
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