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Robotic arms help self-driving trucks attach brake & electric lines

by Charles Choi
Outrider’s TrailerConnect is a patented deep-learning based technology used to robotically connect and disconnect electric and brake lines to any semi-trailer or chassis. Courtesy: Outrider.

Robotic arms developed by autonomous yard operations startup Outrider can help self-driving trucks attach brake and electric lines in logistics hubs, the company announced.

Semi-trailers—the detachable trailers that semi-trucks use to haul freight—handle more goods than trains, ships and aircraft. In the United States alone, semi-trailers are estimated to transport more than 10 billion tons of goods worth more than $700 billion, according to heavy transport company Anster in China.

In cargo yards around the globe, vehicles known as yard trucks help semi-trailers move from dock doors to parking spots to public roads. This requires truck drivers to connect pressurized brake lines to semi-trailers to release the parking brake and move the trailers around the yard. This manual task, which requires the driver to get in and out of the cab constantly, is often dangerous.

Outrider’s new patented TrailerConnect technology robotically attaches brake and electric lines from self-driving yard trucks to any of the more than 10 million semi-trailers and chassis circulating globally.

“Outrider is reinventing the modern distribution yard to be more efficient, safer, and sustainable, and we are delivering the breakthrough technology like TrailerConnect to do it,” Andrew Smith, CEO and founder of Outrider, said in a statement. “TrailerConnect automates a dangerous task traditionally performed over 6 billion times annually worldwide. Four years of development and close partnerships with our priority customers has resulted in a technology integral to autonomously moving freight.”

Although semi-trailers may look very similar, the coupling devices used to connect the brake and electric lines from truck to trailer can be quite different across models. As a result, there are countless configurations and placements across trailer fleets. TrailerConnect uses proprietary software algorithms, hardware, and sensors integrated onto Yaskawa Motoman-supplied robots to locate, identify, connect to, and disconnect from trailers without modifications or adapters.

“Outrider understood it would be infeasible to modify entire trailer fleets to address the diversity of connections,” Matt Johannes, Outrider’s vice president of hardware engineering and robotics, said in a statement. “To automate yards, we brought together an exceptional team with expertise in robotics, perception, and deep learning to ensure safer, more efficient autonomous yard operations.”

Founded in 2017, Golden, Colorado-based Outrider is exclusively focused on automating all aspects of yard operations to eliminate manual tasks that are hazardous and repetitive. Among its other achievements is the first fully autonomous zero-emission movement of trailers around cargo yards and the first fully automated trailer hitching capabilities. The company has raised $118 million in funding to date.

“The rollout of TrailerConnect combined with a long list of technical firsts further solidifies Outrider’s leadership position in the industry and has a massive impact on the trucking sector at large,” Julian Counihan, general partner at Schematic Ventures, which specializes in supply chain and commerce infrastructure, said in a statement. “Autonomous yard operations—a critical part of a streamlined global supply chain—is simply not a reality without the ability for self-driving vehicles to connect to and from trailers.”

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