At a warehouse in California, a fork-truck is moving pallet loads from the receiving docks to replenish racking. When the job is done the forklift parks, but no operator jumps down. Instead, the driver has moved on to drive another forktruck in a distribution centre in Germany.
This sci-fi scenario is now a reality, thanks to a company called Phantom Auto. And no, it is not a miracle of teleportation. Phantom Auto provides technology that allows drivers to remotely pilot unmanned machines from anywhere in the world that can connect reliably to the internet.
Phantom Auto has been working with France-based third-party logistics provider Geodis to develop the remote-control concept for forktrucks. A Geodis manager came up with the idea, and sought out Phantom Auto because of its reputation building remote control driving systems in other industries, says the company’s co-founder Elliot Katz.
The first tests proved that a forklift can be remotely piloted by an operator anywhere in the world. In the test, Fenwick (the French subsidiary of Kion Group company Linde) forktrucks are equipped with Phantom’s secure, network-agnostic, remote operation software.
Remote operators, which Geodis calls digital drivers, can “teleport” between vehicles and between different warehouses with the click of a button. They can work from home or from an office anywhere, using a joystick, foot pedals and computer. The software allows the driver to see and hear what’s going on around the forktruck in real time so they can react to any changes in the environment.
Geodis sees numerous benefits from the concept, including safety, reducing the number of people in a warehouse, and opening up forklift operator jobs to people with physical disabilities who have traditionally not been able to do this work. The company suggests it would allow recruiting workers from areas with higher unemployment who do not have access to physical warehouse jobs.
“Phantom Auto’s technology enables dynamic balancing of workforce allocation, safer warehouses, enhanced worker well-being, and employment opportunities to those who otherwise could not physically drive forklifts,” says Stéphanie Hervé, Geodis’s chief operating officer for Western Europe, Middle East & Africa.
“Any time you’re dealing with technology like ours, which is novel and innovative, you need to work with the companies that are early adopters, somewhat ahead of the curve,” Katz says. “I would definitely put Geodis in that box, so it’s been great.”
In the warehouse environment, there are two applications for the remote control systems, Katz explains. With AGVs operating in a live warehouse environment, where they have to interact with people on the floor, the autonomous systems cannot always cope. Katz says there are “just too many edge cases to make them broadly deployable today.”
For those uses, the Phantom Auto system allows the remote operator to jump in and ‘rescue’ a stuck AGV by directing it around an obstacle. These customers use the remote communication software to monitor multiple automated forklifts at once.
By contrast, with Geodis, the remote operators are actually driving the forktrucks full time, doing putaway or picking operations as though they are actually in the warehouse. “It’s one-to-one,” Katz says. “You have one human, located in a distant location, controlling a forklift in a warehouse.”
Katz notes that safety is a significant advantage in removing the worker from the warehouse. “One in 10 forklifts is involved in a serious accident each year, and that unfortunately can cause broken backs, even death,” he says. “So in getting the operator outside of the physical warehouse, there’s a real safety gain.”
Efficiency and cost control are also priorities for Katz’s customers. With massive warehouses, a forklift operator may have to walk many kilometres a day between machines, so being able to teleport between them saves time and wear and tear on workers.
In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the development of this technology seems fortuitous. Katz reports that Phantom Auto landed a contract extension with U.S. last-mile delivery company Postmates as a result of the pandemic. “They had digital driving centres in San Francisco and L.A., and they wanted everyone to work from home,” Katz says. “We set up all of their drivers across the country, remotely operating and monitoring the existing remote-control fleet from their home offices.”
Drivers on demand
The system can also help companies work through peaks and valleys in demand. Large companies with warehouses all over the country don’t need to recruit local drivers to meet sudden surges. Katz points out that with the Covid-driven boom in e-commerce, seasonal peaks have transformed into weekly or even daily demand spikes.
“Say you have a surge in your warehouse in New Jersey, and you need five forklift drivers there ASAP. Normally, you would have to call in temporary workers or get other people to come in, maybe off-shift,” he says. “Here you can just press a button, on-demand and instantly, you have five digital drivers operating in New Jersey. And when things normalize in New Jersey after a few hours, now there’s a surge in Oregon. Press the same button, and you can have the exact same drivers on the other coast instantly and on demand.”
Because drivers can be located anywhere there is internet access, the system also can help employers alleviate the labour shortage. Remote control drivers don’t need to commute and can work from home, making recruiting easier.
Diversity is very important to Geodis, Katz notes. The 3PL has trained several female operators on the system, and is also training a driver who uses a wheelchair. “People who have never had the opportunity to do this job before, who could not physically operate a forklift, now have the ability to remotely operate it,” he says.
Making the recruiting process even easier, there is no need for previous forktruck driving experience. Katz adds that those with experience take to the system very quickly, but if there is an archetype for a good digital driver he hasn’t figured it out yet. “ We have all different types of people who pick up on this very, very quickly,” he notes. “Digital natives have been good, especially digital natives that have manual forklift operation experience.”
So far Phantom Auto’s customers for the remote control system have been large companies with fleets of tens of thousands of forklifts, Katz says. The system can be installed at the factory or as a retrofit.
“We can work with our customers’ pre-existing fleets and their OEMs of choice. With Geodis, they wanted us to work with Kion Group and that’s what we did,” he explains. “We also have a partnership with Mitsubishi Logisnext, UniCarriers, but we’re agnostic to the OEM.”
The future, now
Katz is optimistic about the application of his technology in the warehousing sector: “It’s going to take a fair amount of time before, say, a robo-taxi that’s going 45 miles per hour on a public road, will be able to deploy with no human in the car, and no human in the loop. I think this is the way we can ensure that this autonomous future we’ve heard so much about can actually deploy in the near term; deploy safely, deploy efficiently, and I’m excited about it.”
“This innovation will be of benefit to the wider community and indicates the future of logistics operations. We believe that technology should serve people, and that is what this partnership with Phantom Auto illustrates,” Geodis’s Hervé concludes.