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When it comes to self-driving vehicles, the middle mile jumped to the head of the line this week when Walmart announced that one of its middle-mile delivery routes in Arkansas will be driven by a completely autonomous vehicle in 2021. That means there won’t be a human driver in the truck as it goes about its route.
The autonomous delivery trucks are from Gatik, a company that has been working with Walmart for the past 18 months on middle-mile delivery. As a quick refresher, the middle mile is the route between a company’s two locations, like between a warehouse and a store.
The autonomous middle mile relies on a specific route between locations. Because this route does not change, the self-driving vehicle only needs to learn and understand how to navigate this one trip. This scenario is far less complex for the AI trying to navigate, in real time, compared to the deliveries made by, say, food robots. The latter has to navigate a new neighborhood filled with new streets, traffic, people and other potential hazards each time it goes out, making the logistical and regulatory landscape of the job much more complicated.
Gatik Founder and CEO explained some of his company’s technology in a recent corporate blog post, writing:
Gatik has taken a radically divergent hybrid approach towards the system architecture, implementation & validation of self-driving vehicles — called ‘Explainable AI’. We decompose the massive monolithic DNNs into micro-models whose intended functionality is restricted to a very specific explainable task, and build rule-based fallback & validation systems around them. Given extensive knowledge of Gatik’s well-defined ODDs and hybrid architecture, we are able to hyper-optimize our models with exponentially less data, establish gate-keeping mechanisms to maintain explainability, and ensure continued safety of the system for unmanned operations.
You get all that?
In addition to making the technology a little bit easier, the constraints of middle-mile routes can also make regulatory approvals easier. A city concerned about safety issues associated with self-driving vehicles may be more open to the technology when it’s only applied to one route that can be intentionally created (e.g., it won’t go in front of a firehouse) and closely monitored. Gatik credited this limited approach for its approval to go humanless in Arkansas.
The middle mile allows different cities and states to dip their toes, as it were, into autonomous driving and learn from it. Assuming all goes well in the middle mile, those lessons can be applied to other forms of autonomous delivery, whether its robots in the bike lanes carrying burritos or rover bots roaming the sidewalk with groceries.
But in addition to being a new path to regulatory approval, the middle mile is also opening up new types of business. As Walmart explained in its corporate blog post announcing this week’s news, an autonomous mile could have other applications. While the middle mile doesn’t go to a consumers door, it could get e-commerce orders closer to the last mile.
Walmart laid out a scenario where it is shuttling goods from a dark store to a centralized pickup location. This could serve customers who order from Walmart online but don’t live near a physical location. But also, a fleet of autonomous delivery trucks could act like a conveyor belt running orders from a distribution center to a pickup point throughout the day. This could bring added convenience for consumers while simultaneously alleviating pressure on Walmart’s existing home delivery infrastructure.
Middle of the road is typically thought of as something that’s boring. But the middle mile use of the road is actually quite exciting.
Given all the investment in the space this year, indoor agriculture is poised to be pretty big in 2021. Part of the attraction to indoor farming is how technology and innovation can help bring greater efficiencies and yields to crop raising.
My colleague, Jenn Marston, covered two big indoor ag stories this week, and what caught my eye was that both companies have unique approaches when it comes to watering their crops.
From Jenn’s piece on AppHarvest, which is building a network of massive indoor ag facilities in Eastern Kentucky:
What is unique to AppHarvest’s approach is its rainwater system. Eastern Kentucky gets abundant amounts of rainfall, which AppHarvest captures and uses for its hydroponic system. This has a distinct advantage over using groundwater, since the latter contains sodium, which leads to agricultural runoff and the need for a system to be periodically flushed. AppHarvest’s greenhouse runs entirely off this rainwater. [AppHarvest CEO Jonathan] Webb says that to his knowledge, no other controlled ag system of this size in the world does that.
Controlled environment agriculture company, Bowery’s plan to is to lose as little water as possible when growing plants. As Jenn wrote:
Other advances include energy-saving LED lighting, more automation of the growing process through BoweryOS, and some innovations in water circulation. The latter will come in the form of what Bowery calls “a comprehensive water transpiration system.” Transpiration is the release of water from plant leaves; Bowery’s system will capture and re-use this water, with the goal of reclaiming “nearly all” of the water used in the growing process.
If the technology watering indoor farms can help create a more equitable and environmentally friendly food system, well, we’ll drink to that.
Toast Launches a Winter Recovery Fund for Restaurants – Company offering a $35 million relief plan for restaurants as winter begins and the pandemic continues to disrupt normal operations.
Sony AI Unveils Trio of Food Projects Including AI-Powered Recipes and Robots – The new food-related endeavors include an AI-powered recipe creation app, a robot chef’s assistant and a community co-creation initiative.
Ritual Teams Up With NYC to Provide Commission-Free Delivery to Restaurants – The deal is part of the second phase of New York’s Empire State Digital Initiative, which is providing support for restaurants and foodservice industry businesses impacted by Covid.
Panasonic Testing Delivery Robots in Japanese Smart Town – Initial tests started in November; the company aims to begin home delivery tests in February of 2021.