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THE EVOLVING RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN DRONES, MOBILE ROBOTS, AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES AND LOGISTICS

robots

THE EVOLVING RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN DRONES, MOBILE ROBOTS, AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES AND LOGISTICS

Last mile delivery is the most expensive part of the delivery chain, often representing more than 50 percent of the overall cost. This is mainly because it is the least productive and automated step. As such, many are seeking to bring automation into the last mile. In recent years, many companies around the world have been innovating to utilize autonomous mobile robots, drones, and autonomous vehicle technology.

Various autonomous robots and vehicles (sometimes called pods) are being developed around the world. These come in a variety of shapes and forms, reflecting the diversity and breadth of design and technology choices which must be made to create such products.

Drone Delivery: a Game Changer in Instant Fulfilment?

My new IDTechEx report, “Mobile Robots, Autonomous Vehicles, and Drones in Logistics, Warehousing, and Delivery 2020-2040,” covers the use of mobile robots, drones, and autonomous vehicles in delivery, warehousing and logistics—and suggests these could create a $1 billion market by 2030. That shows how far we have come since a previous IDTechEx report, “Mobile Robots and Drones in Material Handling and Logistics 2017-2037,” which analyzed the technologies that were then emerging in the last mile delivery space, including drones and autonomous mobile ground robots (or droids).

Several players, big and small, have entered the drone delivery game since then, but at the time of the 2017 report, the idea of drone delivery was sharply dividing commentator opinion, with some dismissing it as a mere publicity stunt.

Indeed, drone delivery must be viewed within the context of the emerging drone industry, which has grown to a more than $1.5 billion industry. In the ensuing years, consumer drones’ hardware platform became rapidly commoditized with prices falling.

The idea of drone delivery entered the mainstream media in late 2013. Around that time, drone delivery of e-commerce parcels was first demonstrated in parallel with drones successfully delivering medicine to remote areas. Since then numerous deliveries have been made, partnerships announced, and substantial sums invested.

Fleet Operation to Compensate for Poor Individual Drone Productivity?

Drone delivery faced critical challenges in 2017. Individual drones offer limited productivity compared to traditional means of delivery (e.g., consider a van delivering 150 parcels in an eight-hour shift). They can only carry small payloads and battery technology limits their flight duration, constraining them to around 30 minutes radius of their base while further lowering their productivity due to the downtime needed for re-charging/re-loading.

The limited productivity, in our view, is not a showstopper. This is because fleet operation can compensate for poor individual drone productivity. The unit cost of drones will be substantially lower than, say, a van, enabling the conversation of a few, highly-productive vehicles into many small drones with high productivity at the fleet level. This will require a further major reduction in hardware costs for commercial drones, but if the past is to be our guide, this will be inevitable.

Limited payload is also not a showstopper because, according to Amazon statistics, some 85 percent of packages weigh 5 pounds or fewer. Furthermore, the fall in delivery costs and time for customers is changing purchasing habits: frequent orders of small items is replacing that big infrequent order. This matches well to the strong points of drones.

The limited range is also not a showstopper even in suburban areas where customers do not live close to a distribution point. It will, however, mandate a gradual yet wholesale change in the location of warehouses with more placed closer to end customers or the use of large mobile drone carrier vans. The former is already happening in the background, while the latter has also been demonstrated at the proof-of-concept level.

Sidewalk Last-Mile Delivery Robots: a Billion-Dollar-Market by 2030?

Sidewalk robots are often designed to travel slowly at 4-6 km/hr (or 2.5-3.7 mph). This is to increase safety, to give robots more thinking time, to give remote teleoperators the chance to intervene, and to enable categorizing the robot as a personal device (vs. a vehicle), thus easing the legislative challenges.

However,  sidewalk robots are still far from being totally autonomous. First, they are often deployed in environments such as U.S. university campuses where there is little sidewalk traffic and where the sidewalks are well-structured. Many robots are also restricted to daylight and perception-free conditions. Critically, the suppliers also have remote teleoperator centers. The ratio of operators to robots will need to be kept to an absolute minimum if such businesses are to succeed.

There is still much work to do to improve the navigation technology. The robots will need to learn to operate in more complex and varied environments with minimal intervention. Furthermore, capital is also essential. The end markets are also highly competitive, imposing tough price constraints.

In general, we forecast a 200,000-unit fleet size until 2035 (accounting for replacement). The inflection point will not occur until around the 2025 period given the readiness level of the technology. This suggests both a large robot sales market and an even larger annual delivery services market provided asset utilization can be high (the services income could reach $1.6 billion by 2035 in a reasonable scenario).

Sidewalk Delivery Robots vs. Autonomous Delivery Vans

These robots, pods and vehicles are mainly designed from scratch to be unmanned. They are also almost always battery-powered and electrically-driven. This is for various reasons, including: (1) electronic drive gives better control of motion, especially when each wheel can be independently controlled; (2) the interface between the electronic control system and the electrical drive train is simpler, eliminating the need for complex by-wire systems found in autonomous ICE vehicles; and (3) their production process needs to handle vastly fewer parts, and as such could be taken on by smaller manufacturers.

Another key technology and business choice is where to navigate. Many robots are designed to travel on sidewalks and pedestrian pavements, while the van-looking pods and vehicles are often designed to be road-going. This choice of where to travel has determining consequences for the design, technology choice, target markets and business model.

Sidewalk robots are an interesting proposition. They come with various hardware choices. For example, some are few-wheeled while many are six-wheeled. Some include a single small-payload compartment, while others carry larger multi-item storage compartments. The key choice, however, is in what perception sensors to use.

Navigation Technology Choices

Mobile robots come with various hardware choices, e.g., number of motor-controlled wheels, payload size and compartment design, battery size, etc. Almost all have HD cameras around the robot to give teleoperators the ability to intervene All also have IMUs and GPS and most have ultrasound sensors for near-field sensing.

A critical choice is whether to use lidar-only, stereo-vision-only, or hybrid. Lidar can give excellent 360deg ranging information with spatial resolution and a dense point cloud which enables good signal processing. Lidars, however, are expensive and can have near-field (a few cm) blindspot. Therefore, the choice to use lidars will represent a bet for the cost of lidar technology to dramatically fall.

Most robots deploying lidars use 16-channel RoboSense or Velodyne lidars. These are mechanical rotating lidars, giving surround viewing. The technology of lidars is evolving with the likes of MEMS or OPA emerging. These could enable cost reduction but will reduce FoV (field of view), thus mandating the use of more lidar units per robot.

We project that the cost of lidars is to significantly fall over the coming years. This has the potential to put such robots on the path towards business viability. The other challenge is near-field blindspots. This is not an issue with cars, but can be in a sidewalk, where many low-lying objects can reside closely to the robot. To resolve these, complementary sensors will be needed.

The other approach is to go lidar-free, using stereo camera as the main perception-for-navigation sensor. This will require the development of camera-based algorithms for localization, object detection, classification, semantic segmentation, and path planning.

No off-the-shelf software solution exists. Indeed, no labeled training dataset exists that would allow training lidar-based, camera-based or hybrid deep neutral networks (DNNs) for sidewalk navigation. The sidewalk environment is vastly different to that of the on-road vehicles. As such, companies will need to collect, calibrate, and meticulously label their own datasets. Furthermore, the datasets will require great diversity to accommodate different light, perception, and local conditions. Deployments in many sites even as pilot programs are essential in further improving the robots and can indeed represent a competitive advantage.

The robots are energy-constrained. As such, the number of on-board processors and GPUs should be kept to a minimum, and heavy-duty computational tasks such as 3D map-making and edge-extraction should be carried off-line in powerful services. This almost always happens when robots are deployed to a new environment: They are walked around to capture data, the data is sent to servers for processing so it can be converted into a suitable map, earmarking edges, many classes of fixed objects, drivable paths, and so on.

Long Road to Profitability Lies Ahead

In general, there is still much work to do to improve navigation technology. The robots will need to learn to operate in more complex and varied environments with minimal intervention. This requires extensive investment in software development. This ranges from gathering data, defining object classes, labeling the data, and training the DNNs in many environments and conditions. It also requires writing algorithms for the many challenges the robots encounter in their autonomous operation.

Furthermore, capital is also essential. The businesses are heavy on development costs, especially software costs. The end markets are also highly competitive, imposing tough price constraints. The hardware itself is likely to be commoditized and many will outsource manufacturing once they have settled on a suitable final design. The payback for many will be having a large fleet to offer robots as a delivery service.

Future Outlook: Significant Robot Sale and Delivery Services Opportunity

Sales and delivery firms are likely to have a long road ahead of them before they reach profitability. They should improve the robots to work in more scenarios beyond well-structured neighborhoods and campuses, to extend their operation to all-day and all-weather conditions, and to extend autonomous operation with little error to nearly all scenarios to drive down the remote operator-to-fleet size ratio.

The deployed fleet size will need to dramatically increase to expand income from delivery services and allow the amortization of the software development costs over many units sold.

We have analyzed all the key companies and technologies in this emerging field. We have also constructed a forecast model, considering how the productivity of last-mile mobile robots is likely to evolve over the years. We have developed various scenarios, assessing the current and future addressable market size in terms of total accumulated fleet size. Our fleet deployment forecasts and penetration rate forecasts are based upon on reasonable market and technology assessments and roadmaps.

Consequently, our forecasts suggest, that despite the upfront technology and market challenges, the market will grow and those who plant their seeds today will reap the benefits tomorrow.

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Dr. Khasha Ghaffarzadeh is the research director at IDTechEx, where he has helped deliver more than 50 consulting projects across the world. The projects have covered custom market research, technology scouting, partnership/customer development, technology road mapping, product positioning, competitive analysis and investment due diligence.

His report “Mobile Robots, Autonomous Vehicles, and Drones in Logistics, Warehousing, and Delivery 2020-2040” covers the use of mobile robots, drones, and autonomous vehicles in delivery, warehousing and logistics. It provides a comprehensive analysis of all the key players, technologies and markets, covering automated as well as autonomous carts and robots, automated goods-to-person robots, autonomous and collaborative robots, delivery robots, mobile picking robots, autonomous material handling vehicles such as tuggers and forklifts, autonomous trucks, vans, and last mile delivery robots and drones. You can find the report here: https://www.idtechex.com/en/research-report/mobile-robots-autonomous-vehicles-and-drones-in-logistics-warehousing-and-delivery-2020-2040/706.

You can find his report “Mobile Robots and Drones in Material Handling and Logistics 2017-2037” here: https://www.idtechex.com/en/research-article/drone-delivery-publicity-stunt-or-game-changer-in-instant-fulfilment/11658.

IDTechEx guides strategic business decisions through its Research, Consultancy and Event products, helping clients profit from emerging technologies. For more information on IDTechEx Research and Consultancy, contact research@IDTechEx.com or visit www.IDTechEx.com.

The World Moving Forward

At the beginning of 2020, the world was upended with changes to its economics and social life by the arrival of COVID-19 – a virus that spread to countries like wild-fire that most were unprepared for. Fear and confusion led the way. Just like the early 2000s during the early stages of e-commerce, many of us stood still and watched certain industries use e-commerce to generate business and eat away at the expense of more traditional companies.

COVID-19 drastically changed the directions of normal activities. Social meetings, shopping habits, and business settings have now been reduced to online platforms. People are now forced to understand the role that internet technology will play in daily life.  Larger numbers of people working and shopping from home than ever before. There is so much difference in activities such as buying hot food or buying canned food from an online store. As a result, two key industries are expected to be extremely important aspects in supporting future daily life for many years to come: express last-mile delivery and logistics supply chain.

Express last-mile delivery has really been an important industry that we all have come to rely greatly upon lately. They deliver our hot-food order and all of our anticipated goods, sometimes even arriving at our front doors in less than an hour while the logistics business is taking a back doors approach in supplying a necessity to increase the productivity of many industries. Many independent logistics companies also help move a country’s raw materials, semi-finished goods, and finished goods into the domestic and international markets. This industry plays a key role in increasing the competitive power of corporations and revitalizing improvements in a country’s economics scales. However, competition in the logistics industry is extremely high. For it to survive and provide better services, companies should seek to consolidate and migrate their data into a cloud computing platform service.

With the adaptations into a cloud logistics platform, the traditional logistics roles can begin to expand, minimizing office and operating expenses, and reducing business risks. Imagine the number of logistics companies who have committed blocks of space to transporters but end up being unable to fulfill 12-24 hours before departure or a shipper who is looking to move shipments on a weekend due to a critical shortage in one of their key customers.

There are high penalty prices to be absorbed by all parties when shipment capacity is unable to be fulfilled due to a lack of communication and coordination among the companies. These unnecessary risks and wastes of business opportunities can be minimized if the information was cleverly integrated-communicated-distributed to its partners in a cloud logistics platform.

New trade and logistics solutions running through a cloud platform have begun with 4 billion smartphone global users. The notion for a business to have only one dedicated trade or logistics partner serving them for many years will need to be re-adjusted in order to provide transparency and better monitoring systems. People and business communities are now demanding convenience in purchasing items from their comfortable homes rather than calling to place an order. We are surrounded by technological inventions all around, created for the benefit of people, to improve our life by increasing productivity and efficiency. With 5G not too far away at a connection 100 times speedier than 4G, our social and business lives will be impacted even furthermore.

Almost all businesses will eventually need to operate on a cloud technology platform to make operations and decision making much more efficient. When trade and logistics are blended into a cloud technology platform, magical moments will definitely happen, with industries moving together with the same interest, we are seeing new ways of getting the job done.

drugs

WHAT TODAY’S USMCA DEBATE HAS TO DO WITH THE DRUGS OF TOMORROW

The political winds seem to be blowing in favor of a Congressional vote on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement (USMCA) yet this fall. But before they vote, some Members of Congress want to talk over a few issues with the Trump administration’s negotiators. They are pressing the administration to lower intellectual property protections for the U.S. biopharmaceutical industry because they say the agreement’s provisions protecting original data generated by pharmaceutical inventors will drive up the price of prescription drugs.

Their arguments strike a political nerve but don’t offer a complete picture of this complex and evolving industry. The USMCA debate reflects a domestic difference in views. While the United States works to develop its regulatory framework for newer drugs, many other markets are further behind. As important as it is, the issue of data protection for biologic drugs is not well understood. We’ll try to cover the top lines.

Pieces of the Intellectual Property Puzzle

For American innovators of biopharmaceuticals, gaining access to overseas markets requires not only securing regulatory approvals; the policy environment must also be conducive to marketing their products, which includes a value-based approach to pricing, procurement, reimbursement policies – and intellectual property protections.

There are various facets to the intellectual property (IP) protections needed to incentivize massive investments in pharmaceutical innovation and to enable the recovery of those costs once a drug is commercialized. Patents are part of the package and so is the protection of proprietary data, the issue at the fore in discussions about USMCA.

These protections are particularly important to American companies. The intellectual property attached to 57 percent of the world’s new medicines was created in the United States. That’s no accident. Research and development activities flourish in countries where IP frameworks are well developed and enforced.

70% drug dev

What is Data Protection?

To achieve marketing approval from a regulatory oversight agency such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and its counterparts in other countries, innovator pharmaceutical companies submit data on the outcomes of their research and years of clinical trials demonstrating the drug is effective and safe. The cost and risks of developing the original data and product fall to the inventor.

When a generic producer or producer of a “biosimilar” seeks approval, they are often afforded the short cut of relying on the inventor’s data. To ensure a balance between incentivizing drug discovery and development while also providing opportunities for lower-cost copies to become available, the inventor’s data may be protected for a period of time against disclosure to generic or biosimilar producer. During this time, any competitor is free to undertake their own data and seek marketing approvals on that basis.

For How Long?

Provisions on data protection are not new in domestic regulations or in trade agreements. Since the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) in 1995, World Trade Organization (WTO) members have agreed not to disclose clinical data submitted to regulatory authorities to obtain marketing approval for pharmaceutical products, thereby protecting such data “against unfair commercial use”.

Negotiators of the TRIPS Agreement contemplated specifying that data protection should be no less than five years, but ultimately refrained from including a specific timeframe, leaving it to the discretion of WTO members in their national regulations. NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, provides a minimum of five years.

Enter a New Type of Drug

The timing of these provisions is relevant to the debate today. The TRIPs and NAFTA provisions apply to new “chemical entities,” meaning small molecule drugs – that is, most drugs on the market to date. These types of drugs are capable of being replicated through chemical synthesis to make generic drugs. For this reason, regulators tend to agree that requiring duplicate data from generics would be an inefficient use of resources and unnecessary testing of patients, as long as the generic product is proven “bioequivalent” to its reference product.

Biologics are newer medicines. They are large, complex molecules that are made from living cells to produce the required proteins. This manufacturing process is vastly more complex. A follow-on product is not identical, but rather structurally similar and thus called a “biosimilar”. An exact replica is not possible, and patients cannot automatically be switched from a biologic to its biosimilar without risk of adverse effects.

Given the differences between biologics and small molecule drugs, they are regulated differently, and the IP protections have been applied differently. Biologics are largely defined by their manufacturing processes and regulatory approval of biosimilars does not require identity with the reference product, so biologics must often rely only on process patents versus a product patent. Innovator companies argue a longer term of data protection is needed to bridge the differences in patent protection or to offset the lack of patent protections in some countries, while allowing them to recover the increased cost of generating the original data.

New Trade Provisions for Biologics

Given the longer innovation cycle and the increased cost and complexity of biologics, many governments have provided longer periods of data protection for biologics than for small molecule drugs.

In the United States, the Biologics Price Competition and Innovation Act signed into law by President Obama in 2016, provides for a 12-year period of regulatory data protection for biologics. American companies have sought the same standards from trading partners.

With new agreements in the WTO largely stalled, the focus of trade negotiations over the last decade has shifted to bilateral and regional trade agreements where provisions are often more detailed and tailored. In negotiations toward the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), the United States pushed for 12 years, but agreed to eight years for biologics from the date of first marketing approval and allowed flexibility in how data protections could be administered. When the United States withdrew from the TPP, the remaining members suspended the relevant provisions.

In the USMCA, American biopharmaceuticals again did not get everything they wanted. Canada and Mexico do not have to match the United States in providing 12 years but agreed to increase the duration of data protection to 10 years from the current standard of five years in Mexico and eight years in Canada.

10 years in USMCA

Why Push Trading Partners to Increase Data Protections?

Beyond North America, the so-called “pharmerging” markets (generally the large developing countries) are growing faster than the stable developed markets. China is by far the largest emerging market for pharmaceuticals. In many developing countries, patent systems are weak or poorly enforced. Regulatory data protection provides some buffer against IP exposure, making it viable and more attractive for companies to introduce their products in that market.

Less data protection and lack of enforcement diminish the potential for U.S. exports. It also leaves the door open for competitors to access unprotected U.S. data without the originator’s authorization. Trade agreement obligations help guard against the unfair commercial use of proprietary data and expand the degree of IP protections in global markets, which is a precursor to greater diffusion of innovative drugs to patients worldwide.

Back to the Core Concerns – Availability and Costs to Patients

Critics of USMCA’s provisions argue data protections keep the prices of biologics high by delaying the introduction of biosimilars. The first biosimilar product was approved in the U.S. market in March 2015. By March 2019, 18 had been approved. Many experts suggest biosimilars have lagged in the U.S. market due to slower changes to the U.S. regulatory system and patent litigation as the industry goes through the same growing pains it did with generic regulation.

As well, drug development is an inherently expensive and risky business, characterized by high failure rates. On average, the process of discovery and commercialization takes 10-15 years at a cost of $2.6 billion. Less than 12 percent of drug candidates make it all the way from lab to patient.

Because of the complexity and high fixed costs required to develop the capacity to manufacture biosimilars, it takes eight to 10 years for biosimilars to come to market, there are fewer entrants than is the case with generics, and the cost savings realized are 10 to 30 percent off the brand, versus an average of 80 percent achievable by generics. Considering the length of time normally required to achieve safe and reliable production of biosimilars, the data protection period in USMCA is unlikely to be a cause of undue delay in getting them to market. Data protection terms are also often less than the remaining patent term.

Your Loss is My Gain

The prominent healthcare research firm, IQVIA, forecasts the biopharmaceutical industry stands to lose $121 billion between 2019 and 2023 as periods of market exclusivity end. Eighty percent of that impact, or loss for innovators, will be in the U.S. market as nearly all of the top branded drugs will have generic or biosimilar competition.

IQVIA says competition among biosimilars is on a path to grow three-times larger in 2023 than it is today. If that’s so, savings over branded biologics could produce approximately $160 billion in lower spending just over the next five years, even as overall spending on biologic drugs grows.

This is part of the business cycle of the pharmaceutical industry and why the innovators maintain strong pipelines because they have limited exclusive time in the market before competitors arrive. That’s good for patients. The data protections in USMCA are not likely to materially impact this cycle or spending. When Canada and Japan lengthened their duration of data protection, drug spending as a percentage of GDP remained nearly flat.

ME losses

Reason for Optimism

Biologics are called the drug of tomorrow. They comprise nearly 70 percent of the innovation pipeline which includes some 4,500 drugs in development in the United States and another 8,000 globally.

Breakthrough products are expected for cancer treatments, autism and diabetes. This is great news, but specialty and niche products tend to come at a higher price so spending may increase as these new drugs enter the market. According to IQVIA, average spending on the brand versions will nonetheless decline from 8.2 percent of the U.S. market to 6.7 percent, a demonstration there’s a healthy market for originals and copies.

There would be no copies without the originals, which is why pharmaceutical regulatory and legal frameworks are full of public policy trade-offs to strike a balance that will support return on innovation while not impeding the availability of affordable drugs. As we make scientific progress, the systems that include IP protections must evolve to accommodate new types of drugs, new capabilities in data analytics and clinical practices, and even changing business models. Not doing so can imperil the pace of progress at precisely the moment when breakthroughs are on the horizon.

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Andrea Durkin is the Editor-in-Chief of TradeVistas and Founder of Sparkplug, LLC. Ms. Durkin previously served as a U.S. Government trade negotiator and has proudly taught international trade policy and negotiations for the last fourteen years as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.