Autonomous Things: Why it matters, Examples & Pitfalls for 2024

Autonomous technologies are poised to revolutionize businesses and industries in the coming years. As devices and systems gain the ability to operate independently, make decisions, and take actions without human input, they unlock new levels of efficiency, productivity, and capability. 2023 will likely see accelerating development and adoption of autonomous things across many sectors.

What are Autonomous Things?

Autonomous things refer to devices and systems that leverage artificial intelligence (AI), sensors, and networking to function independently of direct human control. While self-driving vehicles tend to dominate discussions of autonomy, the concept extends to robots, drones, software systems, and internet-connected devices.

Key attributes that define autonomous things include:

  • Sensing capabilities – Using cameras, LiDAR, radar, and other sensors, autonomous things can perceive their environment, detect objects, and collect data.
  • Connectivity – Networks allow autonomous devices to transmit sensor data as well as communicate with other systems. 5G promises faster speeds and lower latency.
  • Data processing – Onboard computers and AI algorithms analyze sensor data to understand the environment and make real-time decisions about next actions.
  • Actuation – Autonomous things can initiate physical actions and movements without human intervention based on their assessments.
  • Adaptability – The systems continue learning and improving their decision making ability through collected data and experience.

As computing power, AI algorithms, and sensing technologies advance, autonomous things gain skills that once required human cognition and actions.

Why Autonomy Matters Now

We are seeing increased momentum around autonomous things for several reasons:

  • Maturing technology – AI, sensors, networking have improved significantly, enabling greater autonomy.
  • Business benefits – Autonomy promises major gains in productivity, efficiency, consistency, and safety.
  • Declining costs – Plummeting prices for key components like LiDAR make autonomy more affordable.
  • Investment growth – Funding for autonomous vehicle startups hit $16 billion in 2021, 4X the amount in 2020.
  • Pandemic acceleration – COVID-19 increased demand for contactless delivery, disinfection, and other autonomous applications.

As the technology improves and costs drop, autonomous things become viable alternatives to human workers for more tasks. This creates huge opportunities for businesses to leverage autonomy.

Categories of Autonomous Things

Some major categories of autonomous things include:

Autonomous Vehicles

Self-driving cars, trucks, and shuttles are moving closer to widespread commercialization. Leaders in the autonomous vehicle space include:

  • Waymo – The Google self-driving car project which has become the autonomous vehicle leader after over a decade of R&D. Waymo now offers an autonomous ride-hailing service in Phoenix.
  • Cruise – GM‘s autonomous vehicle division which recently started offering driverless taxi rides in San Francisco. Valued at $30 billion.
  • Argo AI – A Ford-backed autonomous vehicle startup with over $2.5 billion in funding and partnerships with Volkswagen and Lyft.
  • Tesla – A pioneer in autonomous driving features like Autopilot and FSD (full self-driving) deployed to hundreds of thousands of customer vehicles.
  • TuSimple – Focused on autonomous trucks for long-haul delivery. Has partnerships with Navistar, UPS, and others.

While autonomous vehicles still face challenges around safety, regulation, and performance in complex conditions, commercial services are already operating in limited contexts today. As technology improves, regulations adapt, and the public becomes more comfortable with driverless transportation, autonomous vehicles will transform personal mobility and logistics.

Warehouse and Delivery Robots

Boxy mobile robots are taking over warehousing and last mile delivery tasks once performed by humans. Companies producing these autonomous robots include:

  • Locus Robotics – Partners with warehouse operators to provide robotic picking and transport solutions, with over half a billion units picked to date.
  • Geek+ – Deploys autonomous mobile robots in warehouses and factories, with over 10,000 robots in the field.
  • Nuro – Focused on autonomous local delivery, has partnered with Kroger, FedEx, and Domino‘s for services.
  • Starship Technologies – Leading sidewalk delivery robot company, has made over 3 million autonomous deliveries on college campuses and in cities.

Autonomous mobile robots are ideal for structured, predictable environments like warehouses and prove more efficient than human workers for repetitive picking and hauling tasks. As the technology matures, adoption will accelerate.

Commercial Drones

Uncrewed autonomous drones have a growing range of commercial and industrial applications:

  • Infrastructure inspection – drones can scan bridges, rail lines, cell towers, and more from the air, reaching difficult to access areas.
  • Security and surveillance – provide aerial monitoring of large facilities, borders, dangerous areas.
  • Mapping and surveying – collect aerial data to generate precise 3D maps and models.
  • Search and rescue – equipped with thermal cameras, drones can help quickly locate missing persons.
  • Agricultural monitoring – drones allow farmers to survey crop health across vast fields.
  • Delivery – airborne drones offer contactless delivery of medical supplies, e-commerce orders, food.

Companies like DJI, Parrot, and Skydio are advancing drone autonomy capabilities with sensing, navigation, and decision making. Autonomous drones remove the need for expert human pilots.

Autonomous Ships

On the water, early examples of autonomous systems include:

  • Uncrewed surface vessels like the Saildrone which collect oceanic data.
  • Autonomous container ships like the Yara Birkeland expected to begin operation in 2022.
  • Mayflower Autonomous Ship which crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 2021.
  • Naval autonomous vessels designed for harbor patrol, mine detection, and other dangerous duties.

While crewless ships face regulatory hurdles, they offer major potential cost savings to the multi-billion dollar shipping industry if operationalized safely.

Autonomous Farm Equipment

On the farm, autonomy takes the form of driverless tractors and other agricultural equipment:

  • Case IH released the autonomous concept tractor in 2016, capable of tilling, planting, and harvesting with no farmer in the cab.
  • John Deere‘s autonomous 8R tractor relies on six stereo cameras to navigate and operate.
  • Startups like Blue White Robotics offer autosteer kits to retrofit existing tractors.
  • Autonomous bulk feed hauling is also gaining ground, eliminating repetitive trips.

Removing the human driver allows farm machinery to operate with precision around the clock, enabling new levels of efficiency.

Autonomous Construction and Mining

Hulking vehicles like excavators and dump trucks also becoming more autonomous:

  • Caterpillar demonstrated a concept autonomous truck in 2021 that can haul 300 tons.
  • Built Robotics equips excavators and bulldozers with autonomy as a service.
  • Komatsu offers autonomous haul trucks for mining operations.
  • Suncor has 150 driverless trucks moving oil sands in Canada.
  • Autonomous drills and blast-hole drill rigs are also coming online.

Mining and construction represent early adopters of autonomy given controlled environments and potential to reduce human danger.

Benefits and Use Cases

Why are companies across so many industries investing in autonomous things? Some of the major benefits they offer include:

  • Increased efficiency – Autonomous systems can often perform tasks faster and more consistently than humans. 24/7 productivity is possible without breaks.
  • Reduced costs – Eliminating human labor and errors improves operational efficiency and lowers costs. Fuel savings also result from more optimal autonomous driving.
  • Improved safety – Removing fallible humans from dangerous situations in mines, on construction sites, on battlefields reduces injuries and deaths.
  • New business models – Autonomous vehicles and drones open up delivery, transportation, inspection, and security services not previously possible.
  • Better decisions – With their expansive sensor coverage and data processing capabilities, autonomous things can make superior real-time decisions to humans in many situations.

Some other innovative use cases benefiting from autonomy:

  • Autonomous floor scrubbers keep warehouses clean.
  • Hotel delivery robots provide contactless room service.
  • Autonomous aerial drones inspect wind turbines.
  • Driverless tractors precisely plant and tend crops.
  • Automated checkout enables grab-and-go retail.
  • Autonomous cranes hoist loads on construction sites.
  • Robotic kitchen assistants like Flippy simplify commercial cooking.

The applications are nearly endless as more tasks get automated.

Challenges and Pitfalls

While autonomy holds great promise, there are still significant technical and regulatory hurdles in many domains. Some key challenges include:

  • Perception difficulties – Most autonomous systems still struggle with object recognition and understanding complex environments. Driving in crowded urban areas with cyclists, pedestrians remains demanding.
  • Regulatory uncertainty – Laws and regulations around autonomous vehicles, ships, and drones are still evolving. Public policies need to encourage innovation while ensuring safety.
  • Cybersecurity risks – Like any connected technology, autonomous devices could be vulnerable to hacking. Security is critical.
  • Harsh conditions – Snow, rain, fog, and other weather can impede autonomous system sensors. Dirt on sensors also poses challenges.
  • Public skepticism – After highly publicized autonomous vehicle accidents, consumers remain wary of driverless technology. Adoption may be slowed.
  • Liability questions – Determining fault in autonomous system failures is complicated. New liability frameworks are required.
  • Jobs impact – While autonomous technology creates new roles, it displaces many traditional driving, delivery and production jobs. Labor unrest may result.

Safely navigating these concerns while allowing innovation will determine how quickly autonomous things proliferate.

The Road Ahead

Given the tremendous investment and progress made in recent years, autonomous things will continue advancing rapidly. By 2023, we will likely see:

  • Expanded robotaxi services in cities as Waymo, Cruise and others scale up autonomous ride hailing fleets.
  • Driverless trucking gaining ground for long haul routes in partnership with logistics giants like JB Hunt and Uber Freight.
  • Warehouse and sidewalk delivery robots becoming commonplace as retailers and shippers adopt autonomous local logistics.
  • More prevalent aerial drones providing security surveillance, critical infrastructure monitoring, agricultural oversight, and emergency services.
  • Autonomous shuttle transit becoming a mobility option for university campuses, business parks, and urban areas.
  • Autonomous tractors capable of planting, tending, and harvesting crops with minimal human supervision.
  • Additional mining sites and construction projects leveraging automated haul trucks, excavators, and other heavy equipment.
  • More autonomous inspection of critical oil, gas, and energy infrastructure using drones and crawlers.
  • Container ships and ferries with varying levels of autonomy commencing service between ports.

While still facing unsolved challenges, autonomous things will undoubtedly continue their momentum and generate tremendous value across industries in 2024 and beyond. Their emergence ranks among the most pivotal technological developments of our era.

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