“The rail industry must embrace what the MIT technology review has called the “relentless pace of automation” if it wants to remain competitive” - Oliver Marteaux
All the shifts that we call “industrial revolutions” can be viewed as successive stages of increased automation. The first in the 18th century was enabled by machines, coal and steam; the second, in the first half of the 20th century by automated mass production lines, oil and electricity; and the third in the 1970s by electronics, computer science and information technology.
So, what next? Picture a world with ubiquitous, networked, big data-crunching, artificially intelligent machines and autonomous systems and you'll have an idea of the coming 4th industrial revolution, or "Industry 4.0". A profound transformation of the way in which we live, travel, work, produce and organise our economies.
Competitive pressure and the pace of automation
This vision may sound a bit futuristic, yet, the future is now. Fuelled by advances in nanotechnology, advanced materials, additive manufacturing, big data analytics, autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things, to name but a few, automation is inexorably picking up pace in all industries, under the pressure for businesses to maintain their competitive advantage in globalised markets.
Transport and logistics are among the sectors primarily impacted: while Amazon has developed small package aerial delivery drones to curb rising shipment costs, US freight logistics companies are considering deploying driverless trucks in platoons, in a business where labour costs account for 75% of shipment costs and driverless trucks are estimated to be eight times more productive than human driven trucks and not affected by fatigue.
Drivers of automation in transport
Cost is not the only driver of automation, and autonomous systems need not be conceived from a purely substitutive perspective to human labour, but can bring many benefits in a complementary way.
Firstly, they have become indispensable auxiliaries in activities that are too “dull, dirty or dangerous” for humans. We can think of tunnel exploration during construction work, inspection and maintenance on high bridges, highways and railway tracks, surveillance of cargoes as natural examples. Secondly, automation is also key to intelligent transport networks, because it allows for things such as operational optimisation, predictive maintenance, and enhanced personalised customer experience.
Air transport embracing automation
The technology for pilotless air travel is already in regular use with ‘fly-by-wire’ systems having eliminated many of the routine pilot functions of the past, such as setting courses and switching navigation radio frequencies. Auto-landing and auto-pilot have also been in place for decades, and control towers at airports are likely to become a thing of the past, with plans at London City airport to relay HD imagery to a remote site in Hampshire, for instance. NASA is currently studying the concept of single-pilot airline cockpits, with a first officer on the ground monitoring several flights at once.
Predictive maintenance has shown impressive results for aircrafts. Rolls-Royce tracks the status of thousands of engines operating worldwide, using onboard sensors and live satellite feeds and generating terabytes of data over the course of a flight, to predict when something might go wrong. This has significantly driven operational efficiency up and maintenance costs down.
Inspection drones, fitted with high definition video cameras, and lasers to scan the outside of the plane, are used by companies such as EasyJet to assist with routine fleet checks, cut down on inspection time, carry out remote checks when the engineers are not available on site, and to inspect aircrafts at height without having to set up a rig, which is safer.
Automated systems are also increasingly being deployed at airports to enhance the passenger experience. Tokyo’s Haneda Airport recently added some ‘robotic personnel’ at the security checkpoint and its train terminal. “Nao” the robot is linked to a digital feed. Travellers can ask it about arrivals and departures; Nao can interact and provide flight data, as well as weather forecasts and other information.At Geneva Airport in Switzerland, another robotic system, “Leo”, is able to scan boarding passes and check luggage.