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New smart container for last-mile logistics

Alphabet’s Inc’s plan for a new waterfront city in Toronto includes a new standard smart container for last-mile logistics.

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For some time now Alphabet Inc subsidiary Sidewalk Labs has been working with Waterfront Toronto on a plan for a new smart city on a vacant part of the eastern shore of Toronto harbour. There are around 750 acres of land in the total area to be redeveloped, and the initial plan would see Sidewalk Labs develop a pilot 12-acre community called Quayside, which would also house a new Canadian headquarters for Alphabet company Google.


This week Sidewalk Labs unveiled its “Master Innovation and Development Plan” to transform the site into “the most innovative district in the world”, with a network of sensors generating data on how people, goods and vehicles move throughout the new community.


With regard to last-mile logistics, the report revisits how the ISO 20’ and 40’ shipping containers revolutionalised global trade, while noting that “last-mile delivery still relies on the cardboard box”. Sidewalk Labs notes that various innovations are currently being tested for last-mile delivery vehicles, but claims “all of these ideas have incorporated the cargo into the vehicle itself, which misses the core insight of the long-haul shipping container: that the storage compartment should be separate from the vehicle, freeing each to evolve independently over time”.


“Inspired by the shipping container, Sidewalk Labs plans to develop standardised “smart containers” as the 21st-century urban equivalent for last-mile delivery”.


The smart containers would form the basis of last mile delivery at Quayside city. Goods would be unpacked from ISO containers and trucks at a neighbourhood logistics hub and sorted into smart containers for delivery. Multiple packages for the same address could be combined and sent at once, and perishable goods could chilled and sent quickly when required.


“Smart containers could be handled by a variety of delivery vehicles — from cargo bikes to traditional trucks to self-driving vehicles — so that cities that have not yet embraced self-driving transportation can still use them. These durable containers would be stackable, enabling them to function as lockers and to be placed easily onto delivery vehicles. They would also be embedded with location-based capabilities to track movements.”


Sidewalk Labs also envisages using the smart containers to return goods, send items to storage, and send garbage and recycling to central locations. All the containers would be have a tracking system and could be controlled and re-routed as required.

directional freight tunnels carry self-driving dollies (Source Sidewalk Labs)
directional freight tunnels carry self-driving dollies (Source Sidewalk Labs)

As to how the containers would be transported between the logistics hub and buildings, Sidewalk Labs plans to deploy “electric self-driving delivery dollies that resemble a large Roomba. These dollies can transport individual smart containers or a set of containers stacked to form a mobile locker system”. Sidewalk Labs wants to work with third-party vendors to identify or develop a design that meets the container’s specifications.


At Quayside the self-driving delivery dollies would transport the smart containers in purpose-built tunnels (pictured left). These would be two meters in diameter, allowing for two way traffic. The tunnel concept has particular appeal in Toronto, where winter weather is a major obstacle to ground-based delivery robots. As shown below, the tunnels would be integrated into buildings to make the whole last-mile logistics system completely internal.

The Smart Logistics concept
The Smart Logistics concept

Smart containers and dollies are favoured over drones being developed by Amazon and others. “In dense downtown areas like Quayside, drones raise a number of issues, from noise to collisions to interference with flight paths (such as those of the planes coming in and out of Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport). It is likely that over time these issues will be addressed, although given the novelty of this innovation, the time frame is impossible to predict”, the report said. To be ready for drones it is proposed that each building at Quayside have a drone landing area on the roof.


There is a high level of interest in Toronto and Canada in the project, but Sidewalkk Labs has a long way to go to convincing the city of Toronto to accept its proposal. In particular, instead of the plan for a 12-acre community the city envisioned, Sidewalk Labs wants wider rights to create a 190-acre development that is connected to the existing transit system.



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