LAWRENCE — Someday in the not-too-distant future, the person delivering a package to your front door might not be a person at all. Instead, a driverless van might pull up in front of your house, the back doors open, and a robotic arm hands out that book you’ve ordered from Amazon.
That’s the idea proposed by a group of University of Kansas School of Engineering mechanical engineering students during their 2017-18 senior capstone project. It’s a dream that may soon become a reality thanks to the leadership of a KU alumnus at a California-based company looking to reinvent the “last-mile” package delivery industry.
“There's hundreds of thousands of delivery vehicles making deliveries,” said Austin Hausmann, a KU mechanical engineering graduate who now serves as vice president of research and product development for Chanje, a company working to deliver turnkey energy infrastructure services for the last-mile industry. “With the rise of e-commerce, that's only increasing. Unfortunately, we're solving this with fossil-fuel vehicles. Every efficiency you can gain, to drive seconds or miles out of a fleet's day, has a huge impact.”
Chanje is already addressing the issue with its line of fast-charging electrical delivery vans. But in autumn of 2017, Hausmann returned to the School of Engineering and offered the senior students a challenge: How to make the process more automated?
“We introduced them to the product and the business model, gave them the operating conditions and said, 'Here's the challenge.' A typical delivery driver is in and out of the vehicle a hundred times a day. That's stress on the body. We gave them some use cases but no direction on how to solve it,” Hausmann said.
It was a vague order, Hausmann admits, but one intended to open the door to a variety of possibilities. “We wanted the students to come up with a solution,” he said. “We wanted their creativity to come through.”
Eric Ferguson and Lauren Sherwood, then-seniors from Lenexa and Topeka, respectively, were part of the senior group that accepted the challenge.
“They really gave us a lot of freedom for this project,” Ferguson said. “We had a really abstract goal.”
The students were also excited by the opportunity. “My class lucked out,” Sherwood said. “ We got to work with a super-cool startup with a really unique project.”
With a wide-open charge, the students dug in. “The first semester was entirely conceptual work — were we going to do something with robots, drones?” Ferguson said. “We ran into a lot of regulatory issues, technological issues.”
They broke the delivery process down into four stages: Package to truck, truck to neighborhood, package off truck and getting the package to the delivery doorstep. They investigated the market, with a particular look at Amazon’s practices.
“We had to dig into that, figure out what people are doing and why they aren't doing these things,” Sherwood said.
The idea for an autonomous robotic arm — to handle packages inside the truck and hand them out to a driver — came only at the end of the semester. “There was no ‘Aha!’ moment,” Sherwood said. “It was definitely an iterative process.”
The solution proved surprisingly simple — and already available to use: a Universal Robots UR10 robotic arm. The device weighs about 30 pounds and can extend to 6 feet in length. The senior students brought in a delivery van from California, then spent the spring semester figuring out how to install the arm in the van, how to program it to do the work needed to move packages around inside the vehicle and ensure the right package gets to the right customer.
Hausmann was delighted by the proposal.
“It’s a relatively small robotic arm,” he said. “It’s really flexible to move throughout the vehicle.”
For the students, it was an opportunity to put the lessons of their School of Engineering education to use — as well as to make a first mark on the industry.
“It's definitely nice to see how a lot of things we learned in school, that I thought I would never use again, be used in the course of this project,” said Sherwood, who now works for FM Global in Chicago.
“It's a source of pride to our team and school to have a hand in innovating,” added Ferguson, who now works for Hartfiel Automation in Lenexa. “I've always loved the idea of inventing and creating new things. To work with such a leading edge company to have a chance to affect the future of a big industry, I loved it.”
Now Chanje is working to proceed with the seniors’ proposal, looking for opportunities to bring it to market.
“We haven't seen companies executing something like this,” Hausmann said. “This is a very early step, and there's a lot of work to be done yet, but it's opened up our thinking about how this can be a scalable effort moving forward.”
Hausmann said his own passion for electric vehicles was developed during his years at KU. He said the capstone project was good for both the students and his company.
“This program is unique in that it allows the students to impact the industry in a meaningful way,” he said. “And we get access to creative ideas on how to move forward.”