More and more companies rely on remote control
Dusseldorf The Hamburg port operator HHLA joins the start-up Fernride with his innovation unit and wants to operate trucks remotely in the future. With the technology of the Munich company, trucks can be started, steered and stopped from great distances. The first tests are now beginning at the HHLA container terminal in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, as both companies announced on Wednesday.
After the logistics company DB Schenker and the agricultural machinery manufacturer Krone, this is the third group to join the start-up founded in 2019. Carmaker also tests Volkswagen the technology. The interest in Fernride is just one indication: the so-called teleoperation arouses great expectations. Logistics in particular hopes to be able to use this to solve the problem of skilled workers. In Europe alone, there is a shortage of hundreds of thousands of truck drivers.
Ultimately, however, remote-controlled vehicles could be used wherever autonomous driving will remain utopian for the foreseeable future. This applies to logistics, passenger transport – and the deployment of soldiers.
Completely different companies are therefore also trying out teleoperation: Fernride was spun off from the Technical University of Munich. Behind Vay – a Berlin start-up for remote-controlled cars – are managers who have worked on autonomous driving in Silicon Valley and the German auto industry. And with Rheinmetall and Diehl, armaments companies with a hundred-year history are researching remote control technologies.
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“Without automating the vehicles, it will not be possible to ensure logistics in the future,” says Klaus Kappen, head of technology at Rheinmetall. With its subsidiary Mira, the armaments group and automotive supplier wants to develop teleoperation systems to enable driverless mobility.
The market for teleoperation is going to be so big, there is room for multiple vendors. Rheinmetall technology boss Klaus Kappen
The increasing competition is seen in the industry more as proof of feasibility than as a risk. Kappen says: “The market for teleoperation is going to be so big that there is room for several providers.”
The solutions are technologically similar: Cameras and sensors on the vehicle recognize lane boundaries, obstacles and other road users. The teleoperator sees this at his computer workstation, which is set up like a cockpit. As in a real vehicle, he steers the vehicle using the steering wheel, brakes and joystick.
What all approaches have in common is that they should increase the efficiency of the drivers deployed and increase their safety.
Fernride boss Hendrik Kramer concentrates on intralogistics – i.e. all processes in which trucks have to be loaded and unloaded on factory premises, transhipment points and at ports. Teleoperation would also be quickly ready for use here because no road approval is required on company premises.
Logistics: Teleoperation is quickly ready for use on company premises
Kramer promises the logistics companies that have invested with him that they will be able to have four trucks per driver in use by 2024. By 2025, the ratio is expected to be one to ten.
While truck drivers today often have to wait a long time before loading can continue, teleoperators can switch to other vehicles during this time. Fernride 2022 has already shown that this works with one driver and two vehicles.
When expanding the human-machine relationship, Kramer also relies on additional autonomy functions. “If the vehicle has to drive straight for a minute in between, it can be controlled by an algorithm. In the event of a parking maneuver at the loading ramp, the teleoperator takes over again.”
The upcoming shunting tasks are to be assigned to the teleoperators via a platform in the future. This means that one driver will not be responsible for four specific vehicles. Rather, a team of 20 drivers then takes care of 100 trucks together.
>> Read here: VW and Fernride are testing remote-controlled trucks in Wolfsburg
Kramer does not expect resistance from the unions, even in view of such figures. Because they would know that most accidents at work happen to truck drivers when getting on and off the truck. Kramer says: “The fewer people who have to walk around between the masses of steel, the better.” Fernride wants to go into series production in the coming year.
Passenger transport: The rental car comes remotely controlled
Another German start-up is already allowed to take part in regular road traffic with its remote-controlled vehicles. Vay from Berlin announced in December that it was “the first company in Europe” to be able to carry out test drives on public roads without a safety driver.
This makes teleoperated driving more realistic in the area of passenger transport. Vay wants to offer a mixture of taxi and rental car service, where users can order a car via an app. After this has arrived at their place by remote control, they should take over the controls themselves.
Normally, tests with remote-controlled or autonomous vehicles still require people behind the wheel who can intervene in the event of danger. The exception for Vay is now the authority for traffic and mobility change of the city of Hamburg. “It’s great to see that this is possible from Europe,” said co-founder and Vay boss Thomas von der Ohe.
>> Read here: Berlin start-up has been driving cars through Berlin by remote control for two years
Mira also wants to hit the streets as soon as the law allows. The Rheinmetall subsidiary is to develop remote control technology that car manufacturers and vehicle owners can integrate into their cars. This gave logistics companies, local transport providers and rental car companies “the necessary technology to make their business models more efficient and therefore future-proof,” says Klaus Kappen, who is also Managing Director of Mira.
In his role as head of technology at Rheinmetall, he also wants to integrate teleoperation into military vehicles in the future. He sees the first use case in trucks, which he predicts could be on the road by remote control as early as 2027/2028. Technologically, there would be many synergies with civil applications – only in the case of data transmission armed forces may rely on their own networks instead of on the public mobile phone networks.
Defense technology: Development faces major challenges
In the longer term, however, teleoperation could also become relevant for weapon systems. The next generation of main battle tanks is planned with unmanned escort systems. With the “Main Ground Combat System” (MCGS), which is to replace the Leopard 2 from 2035, “assistance functions including teleoperation would certainly be an issue,” says Kappen.
Fully autonomous weapon systems are also discussed again and again in the military sector. But in the development of ground vehicles, the challenges are likely to be even greater than in the automotive industry. On the one hand, much less data is available for training the systems in unfamiliar terrain – with trees, walls and rubble. On the other hand, the development costs have to be recouped through a smaller number of vehicles.
The German armaments group Diehl Defense is also testing and developing remote control technology and sees it as superior to autonomous systems in some cases: “In very dynamic scenarios, teleoperation is still preferable today,” says a spokesman. The complex environment is “a major challenge for autonomy”.
In addition, the armaments companies consider teleoperation to be indispensable for ethical reasons. “As Rheinmetall, we will not build fully autonomous weapon systems,” says Head of Technology Kappen. “Through teleoperation, the soldier retains control of the system’s mobility, sensors and effectors.”
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