Vans as motherships

New technologies are improving transport logistics. Drones, intelligent doors, and camera systems are making the work of drivers and fleet managers easier.

Until now, urban logistics have been a very down-to-earth matter. As the last link in the supply chain, vans roll through the streets to deliver goods. However, because of the rapidly expanding online trade, they are increasingly reaching the limits of their capacity. Today logistics companies have to deliver 3.35 billion parcels annually in Germany alone, and that number is increasing. “Nowadays people who order things online want to receive their orders as soon as possible,” explains Corinna Elosge, who heads the Vans & Drones project at Mercedes-Benz Vans.

In order to meet this demand, Mercedes-Benz Vans is now using both ground-based and airborne means of transportation. In line with the Vans & Drones concept, express freight is delivered by air to a Sprinter, which then becomes a mothership for subsequent “air freight.”

Corinna Elosge, Head of the Vans & Drones project at Mercedes-Benz Vans

This innovative delivery method was successfully tested a year ago in a pilot project in Zurich. Mercedes-Benz Vans is now presenting a further development of the project at the IAA Commercial Vehicles auto show in Hanover. Here the developers have chosen a clever solution: The delivery drone doesn't carry the parcels directly to the customers. Instead, it takes them to a delivery vehicle which drives the final meters of the Last Mile to the customer. After all, very few apartments are located in places where drones could land. That’s why “delivery via drone directly to the end customer is still difficult today,” according to Elosge.

Mobile infrasctructure

“Consequently, it makes sense to take another approach to deliveries via drone — namely, to use a mobile landing site,” she explains. “In addition, no special infrastructure has to be set up at the end customer’s location. That’s why we call our solution a mobile infrastructure.” This approach reduces the cost and effort involved. At the same time, it makes it possible to deliver goods faster. Moreover, it enhances safety because it does not require any direct interaction between the recipient and the drone.

Nowadays people who order things online want to receive their orders as soon as possible.

Corinna Elosge, Head of the Vans & Drones project at Mercedes-Benz Vans

This solution is much more flexible because the flying transport drone can also head for the Sprinter mothership while the Sprinter is on the move, as soon as the logistics center has informed the driver. It’s also possible to transport parcels back and forth between two vehicles. And because the drone can reach a top speed of 70 km/h and fly through the air along direct routes, it’s much faster in urban areas than a road-based van. This combination of a specially equipped Sprinter and a drone makes air delivery of goods possible in urban environments.

A Sprinter that is used for air delivery is equipped with one or two landing sites and a flap opening mechanism in order to unload parcels from the drones and, if necessary, load parcels into them. In addition, it includes a storage space where the drones are kept if they don’t have to be sent out again immediately. Thanks to this innovation, the flight plans for the drones can be organized flexibly.

The landing platform mounted on the Sprinter sends an infrared signal to the drone to enable it to land automatically with centimeter precision.

The load capacity of the drones is currently two kilograms. The supplier is the US startup Matternet. The drones’ maximum range is 20 kilometers. The Sprinter carries replacement batteries so that the drone can fly to a more distant destination or back to the stationary warehouse if necessary. The drone is guided to its destination by a superordinate control system, flies automatically and independently on preprogrammed routes, and orients itself via GPS signals. The landing platform mounted on the Sprinter sends an infrared signal to the drone to enable it to land automatically with centimeter precision. The electric-drive Sprinter will be used in a further expansion stage of the system.

The Matternet drones have already been used commercially for more than a year without any incidents. For example, a laboratory in Zurich is using them to transport blood samples, which are packed in special boxes, between the laboratory and a hospital.

It makes sense to take another approach to deliveries via drone — namely, to use a mobile landing site. In addition, no special infrastructure has to be set up at the end customer’s location.

Corinna Elosge

Artificial Intelligence in the Cargo Area

Mercedes-Benz Vans is continuing to optimize not only the air delivery of especially urgent shipments but also exclusively van-based logistics. The newly developed CoROS (Cargo Recognition and Organization System) will make the work of Sprinter drivers much easier in the future. This intelligent camera-supported system recognizes and registers parcels automatically by means of their barcodes in fractions of a second. That spares the driver the time-consuming process of scanning and sorting the parcels by hand. After the parcels have been registered, the system uses blinking LEDs to show the driver the optimal storage location for each parcel. This location is defined according to the order in which the parcels must be delivered. Another advantage is that CoROS prevents misloading by warning the driver, by means of visual and acoustic signals, when the system detects a misdirected parcel.

In addition, the cargo is monitored during the drive, so that the driver and the fleet manager know at all times where the parcels are located, even if they are disarranged after the driver has to abruptly brake the vehicle. Product returns are also registered automatically. Initial test runs in the USA and Europe have shown that the use of CoROS reduces the time needed for loading the vehicle by approximately 15 percent. This significantly optimizes the entire delivery chain.

Faster Entering ans Exiting

In urban logistics, every minute counts. That’s why Mercedes-Benz Vans has developed special automatically opening double swinging doors for the Sprinter, which unlock themselves and open as soon as the driver enters the cargo area. In the future, the driver will only have to pick up the parcels. The Speed Delivery Door automatically closes a few seconds after the driver has left the cargo area. This can save up to ten seconds per stop. It may not seem like much, but during a working day in which the driver makes 150 stops it adds up to a total of 25 minutes. Besides, the driver’s back and joints also benefit from the double swinging doors. This new feature will be available as optional equipment for the Sprinter starting next year.

Another innovation from Mercedes-Benz Vans is also a time-saver. Today service technicians spend a lot of unproductive time on activities related to material logistics, such as putting materials into interim storage and returning unneeded parts. In the future, the time spent on these activities can be reduced by means of a digital solution called In-Van Delivery & Return (IDR).

As a result, service technicians no longer have to make time-consuming trips to the central warehouse.

Thanks to IDR, dispatchers and service technicians can transfer these tasks to logistics companies, which deliver the necessary parts to the vans without needing to use any keys and pick up materials that are no longer needed. As a result, service technicians no longer have to make time-consuming trips to the central warehouse. The time they gain can be used for productive activities. Besides, the dispatcher can independently decide which logistics company should receive the order and have access to the vehicle. In-Van Delivery & Return also boosts efficiency at specialty logistics companies. Thanks to the digital integration of data into the driver’s hand scanner, no time-consuming handover of van keys is necessary. Vans that are not always brought back to the same parking space can found at night reliably via GPS location. The new service is already being successfully used by the first group of customers, and starting next year it will be available for use by additional companies.

 

The future-oriented adVANce initiative of Mercedes-Benz Vans focuses on three areas of innovation: connectivity and IoT applications that are used to integrate various technologies into the vans (digital@vans), the development of innovative hardware solutions for the transportation sector (solutions@vans), and new mobility concepts for the transportation of people and goods (mobility@vans). The focus of digital@vans is on connecting vans by means of cutting-edge technologies, whereas solutions@vans develops innovations such as automated cargo systems for vans. Meanwhile, mobility@vans aims to develop intelligent mobility concepts for transporting people and goods. Among other things, it combines various technologies in order to optimize transportation during the Last Mile.

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