How augmented reality is revolutionizing the freight industry

This video display shows what a technician would see on an augmented reality screen using a Caterpillar maintenance app.

This video display shows what a technician would see on an augmented reality screen using a Caterpillar maintenance app.

Augmented reality (AR) is a concept that sounds like jargon at face-value, but in effect, could help digitally transform the freight industry. AR is now ubiquitous in the freight niche - from floating insights while on the road about vehicle mechanics and on-road intelligence to bolstering warehouse logistics.

It needs to be mentioned that AR is still in a nascent phase of development, especially with functional applications still under research. Nonetheless, AR coupled with visual learning models could help industries that involve a lot of labor to cut down on excessive dependence on different market players.

For example, the transportation industry employs over 8.7 million people in the United States, with a significant chunk being truck drivers. Long-haul truck drivers face a difficult time on the road should their vehicle suffer a mechanical issue. If in the event of a breakdown, precious time and money is lost looking for the nearest dealer or local garage, or waiting for a truck technician to reach the truck. But with the help of AR smart glasses that provide basic instructions on how to make the necessary repairs, truckers could fix minor glitches themselves and get to understand their truck better.

The process involved is simple - with AR smart glasses, truckers can glance and assess the problem and through visual insights provided through repair apps, could even fix minor issues at hand, without the presence of a skilled technician.

Apart from being used as a stop-gap solution, AR could also be streamlined to be used across interstate highways to provide truckers with context-specific information in a visually appealing way. AR could be used on smartphones, and AR applications can provide digital assistance to help bring into prominence the repair shops, truck stops, and garages that are on the route.

Major manufacturers like Volkswagen and Caterpillar are investing millions of dollars in innovation across AR and VR. The Mobile Augmented Reality Technical Assistance (MARTA) is a system developed by Volkswagen that helps users work on repairs and maintenance, based on its real-time object recognition software. Caterpillar is building support experiences by bringing digital data analytics into the physical world through AR, having produced over 500 virtual machines and engine models across its product line.

Alternatively, AR systems could be used for enhancing the driving experience by projecting vital information like driving speed, weather updates, and approaching road stops. BMW is working on a heads-up display (HUD) device to project driving speed on the windshield of some of its flagship cars. Its HUD is augmented with virtual instructions that are superimposed on real objects on the road, which could improve navigation and ease the pressure of long-haul driving.

On the logistics front, the potential of AR application is tremendous. Warehousing operations, for example, is largely a physical affair with workers depending on the pick-by-paper approach, even in developed countries. Training employees to become skilled and more efficient also requires lengthy pedagogy, the cost of which is borne by the warehouses. AR and computer vision can change that, through the pick-by-vision system that can revolutionize warehousing operations.

The software behind this technology recognizes serial and barcode numbers, identifies objects, and also helps employees navigate the warehousing floor to expedite the picking process. It also realizes a 100% error-free picking rate, which significantly tightens quality control. The employee can proceed to scan the item, and the data can be used in real-time stock updates across the logistics chain.

Transportation processes can be optimized further with AR equipment that lets collectors check for load completeness swiftly. Research on 3D depth sensors could pave the way for AR to understand objects as we do, and this could help in determining load volumes. Based on the dimensions of a load, AR can intelligently show the truck driver the amount of cargo his freight can take. Visual intelligence can also be used to identify damages which might not be visible at a casual glance.

AR could help revamp existing navigation systems by creating dynamic traffic support which can improve productivity by a sliver. The European Commission estimates that traffic congestion in Europe costs it about 1% of its total GDP every year, driving up interests in such traffic support related solutions. With AR headsets, drivers could get real-time mapping solutions projected on their windshields, assisting them with re-routing and cutting across traffic to deliver freight on time. 

The technology could also be universally used to create interactive training modules for truck drivers or help with fleet management solutions. FleetBoard, a product of Daimler AG, is working on HoloDeck - a hardware vision tool that allows a user to see and interact with virtual 3D projections. HoloDeck uses HoloLens and can transform a simple table into a road map on which fleet management is made possible. In the future, fleet owners could monitor their trucks through 3D holographic projections - right on their work desk.

In essence, the interest in AR looks to be increasing over time with new potential applications ushering hope to the emerging technology. The AR market has been growing by almost 100% year-on-year over the last five years and is going strong with revenues touted to hit $5.2 billion this year. With numerous startups sprouting in the field of AR, it is without question that this vertical is here to stay.

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