When the robot rings the doorbell

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Text: Juliane Gringer
Photos: TU Berlin

With the BeIntelli project, the Technische Universität Berlin, together with many partners, is researching how intelligently networked mobility can function in the city.

Imagine that your parcels are no longer brought to your front door by the messenger, but that small delivery robots deliver the shipments over the pavement into the house and ring your doorbell: How does this scenario feel? Does it sound like a smart innovation to you or do you find it rather scary that such a device could then know your address and someone could steal the little guy’s load? “How people perceive artificial intelligence and how open they are to it will have a significant influence on how well technologies can become established in everyday life,” explains Professor Frank Straube, Head of the Logistics Manager Department at the Institute of Technology and Management at Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin).

How well do people accept AI?

As part of the project “BeIntelli“, he and his colleagues are therefore researching how people accept AI in mobility and how an intelligent transport system with electrically powered, autonomous vehicles that transport people as well as goods can function. Part of the team, for example, is Professor Sahin Albayrak, head of the Distributed Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the TU, who uses his computer science expertise to oversee the topic of distributed artificial intelligence: “We are further developing vehicles and their components into system solutions for higher-level mobility in order to increase the efficiency of city logistics,” he explains.

Real test track in the middle of Berlin

As part of the huge project, which is funded with around 25 million euros by the Ministry of Transport, the largest “AI real lab in Europe” is being built in Berlin. There, cars, buses, SUVs and delivery robots will be used on a real test track between Kurfürstendamm and Brandenburg Gate. Among other things, test bus stops for digitalised local public transport will be installed. Here, vehicles are to grow into intelligent mobility systems that are energy-efficient as well as sustainable and offer users more safety, health, comfort and also productivity: Safety is increased by recognising people and their behaviour. The cars emit less CO2, which improves air quality and can thus have a positive impact on the health of citizens. And those who do not have to sit at the wheel themselves can relax or work on the road, for example, and thus realise greater productivity.

Intelligence not only in the vehicle

“Our concept is that not all the intelligence sits in the vehicle, but we believe in distributed intelligent systems and put some of it in the infrastructure, installing sensors and cameras along the roads,” explains Frank Straube. “This gives the vehicles a completely new role in the realisation of logistics mobility. ” A so-called AI middleware controls the artificial intelligence systems between possible objects and application fields. Mainframe computers at the AI then steer the vehicles remotely – this has already been successfully tested in a previous project called DIGINET PS. “There we learned a lot about how vehicles and the infrastructure on the roads can work together. We are now using this knowledge to realise more than just autonomous driving,” says Straube.

Dynamic unloading stations

The logistics professor is responsible for the area of freight transport logistics in the project. Among other things, he is investigating how sustainable logistics solutions can be realised in order to use the scarce space in the city more efficiently: “We are thinking, for example, of dynamic unloading areas: You don’t have to keep spaces free if there’s nothing to unload at the moment, but if a lot of deliveries are coming, then it would be good if the system recognises where vehicles fit best in parking spaces and reserves those spaces for them.” In addition, the delivery robots described at the beginning could deliver to retailers as well as private customers. The increased safety that intelligent mobility can offer is also important to the researcher: “With all of this, we want to contribute to a liveable city that remains competitive and is sustainable.”

»We want to contribute to a liveable city that remains competitive and is sustainable.«

Professor Frank Straube, Head of the Logistics Department at the Institute of Technology and Management at the Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin)

What BeIntelli makes possible is to be shown to the public at Berlin’s Ernst-Reuter-Platz in a centre for artificial intelligence that can be experienced: Workshops and info events will be held there and people can take part in demonstration rides in autonomous cars or buses. “The findings of the project are to be reflected upon, not only by those involved, but also by the population, politicians and all people who are interested,” says Straube. “In this way, BeIntelli should also reduce fear of contact and educate people about the technologies in order to increase their acceptance.”

Taking research to the streets

Another project is currently being planned: the additional use of drones is to be tested. “They will not deliver anything themselves, but serve as a so-called view extension for the autonomous vehicles,” explains Frank Straube. “For example, they can look into the side streets and detect parking spaces there where you could unload intelligently.” BeIntelli has already started, with the first vehicles driving since spring 2021. The project will run until 2023 and partners are still being sought. “Anyone who is interested in participating in BeIntelli can become an associated partner, define their own use cases or contribute their own real infrastructure topic and test such scenarios themselves,” says Straube. If you are interested, you are welcome to contact him directly. In the future, BeIntelli will make its data and models available to other market participants such as start-ups and industry partners: this is how more AI-supported mobility solutions are to be made possible and research brought to the streets.

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