17 November 2020 | UK

While Covid-19 continues to claim both human and economic victims, the quest for technology-enabled automation continues unabated. In fact, it is accelerating, as both governments and corporations are discovering and exploring how to capitalize on drones, robots, autonomous vehicles, and automation in general.

CILT UK have shared this article by Dominique Bonte, Managing Director and Vice President, ABI Research:

Unlocking new paradigms

Covid-19 has put stress on established government and logistics systems and services in terms of excessive demand and new hygienic requirements over and beyond the normal levels they were designed for. High-profile examples are listed below:

  • The use of drones for communication and enforcement of social distancing rules to assist an overstretched police force in France and other countries.
  • The use of drones and other types of last-mile robotic transportation modes for the delivery of medical supplies and other critical goods with exceptional legislation put in place overnight in, for example the US, to cope with sudden spikes in eCommerce requiring much higher levels of flexible last mile delivery capacity.
  • Use of simulation tools, modeling and digital twins to increase real-time intelligence about the availability and location of resources and capabilities.
  • New types of surveillance – AI-based remote temperature sensing allowing automating checkpoints at airports and other critical locations in cities; location tracking and tracing.
  • Accelerated deployment of mobile robotics for logistics operations at warehouses, airports, ports, and other transportation hubs enabling more flexible, on-demand supply chains.
  • Autonomous and touchless technologies minimizing or avoiding risky human contact.
  • Cleaning robots and robotic assistants in train station, airports and other venues.

Future resilience: a top of mind concern

The initiatives and solutions mentioned above are not only relevant for addressing the immediate demand-response challenges imposed by Covid-19, but are also preparing for future calamities from a resilience perspective. It is becoming increasingly clear that drones and other forms of robotics are exceptionally flexible in terms of use cases and deployment modes making them the ideal emergency response technology tools to cope with future known and unknown disasters, ranging from climate change induced draught or flooding and massive cyberattacks to indeed entirely new types of threats.

Technology-enabled cost savings: an ally for economic recovery

The impact of Covid-19 on the economy is still developing and being assessed – ranging from a dramatic reduction of growth in emerging regions like China to a 10% drop in established economies in Europe, for example in Germany, to a staggering 30% decline in the US, the world’s largest economy. In the first half of 2020, commercial vehicle registrations in Europe were down 34%. Heavy commercial vehicle sales were hit even harder.

While this has unfortunately prompted companies around the globe to shed employees, anticipating a protracted post-Covid-19 economic recovery, the quest for other types of technology-enabled cost savings is also a high priority item on corporate and government agendas. Reducing or indeed eliminating the cost of office real estate by a partial or full transition to remote working is obvious, being part of a more general adoption of digital lifestyles and virtualized services also including remote education, e-Government services, e-Health and teleconsultation.

In more industrial settings, robotics and automation are increasingly seen as the only way to continue profitable operations in the post-Covid-19 era. Looking back in time, it will turn out Covid-19 will have marked the start of a wide ranging and fundamental transition to industrial automation across manufacturing and the entire supply chain. Companies failing to embrace automation will simply disappear.

Shift to autonomous commercial vehicles

With much of the previous decade having been dominated by the debate and growing expectations around the arrival of driverless cars and passenger shuttles, this decade might see the focus shifting more to autonomous commercial vehicles.  While the deployment of driverless trucks and other types of commercial vehicles on public roads is not to be expected before 2025, autonomous vehicles for logistical operations at airports and ports are more imminent. Navya, known as the leading developer of driverless shuttles, recently launched the Autonom Tract, an autonomous tow-tractor for the transport of goods on industrial sites and airports. It is currently trialed at airports in France for transporting baggage between the baggage sorting area and aircraft. Other promising segments for the deployment of autonomous vehicles include mining, construction, and agriculture as they largely avoid the regulation applicable to public roads. In smart cities’ contexts, autonomous street cleaning and decontamination vehicles will make their appearance.

Lasting impact of covid-induced digital transformation

While some observers were considering a lot of what is mentioned above as one off temporary measures, waiting to go back to business as usual as soon as the pandemic eased down, the emerging second wave recently developing across Europe is hitting home home the realisation habits will have to change permanently. Protection against the Covid-19 virus will remain critical, even after the arrival of effective vaccines. New types of viruses might be waiting in the wings. And, as mentioned above, new potential threats need to be taken seriously.

While many of the measures taken by city governments and corporations during Covid-19 are decided on the fly, requiring high levels of improvisation, it has resulted in a rich laboratory-type learning experience in terms of how to take advantage of the inherent flexibility of technologies to address emergency situations and challenges linked to demand-response management of assets and services. This will have a lasting impact, coming out of Covid-19 during and after the drawn-out recovery period, in the form of a step change in how resilience is approached and generalized, allowing businesses and states to prepare better for future calamities; a distinct silver lining on a very dark Covid-19 cloud.

Additionally, the move to a more virtual lifestyle has already resulted in a dramatic decrease in congestion, the number of traffic fatalities, and air pollution. Importantly, post-Covid-19 traffic levels are expected to only reach between 80% and 90% of the pre-Covid-19 levels, as digital lifestyles take hold more permanently, driven by both public and private initiatives and incentives. This will have lasting positive effects on the environment.

In conclusion

What has been set in motion and/or accelerated by Covid-19 – from a digital lifestyle to the adoption of robotics and automation – has far reaching benefits over and beyond coping with the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the pandemic. Resilience against future threats, cost savings enabling a faster economic recovery, and a massive positive impact on the environment are critical incentives to adapt to and maintain the new normal.

This is an example of industry analysis from the UK which we are sharing as part of our global best practice resource to help you think about and determine appropriate responses locally.