More and more people are ordering online. But delivery traffic threatens to clog city centres. Researchers at the RWTH Aachen University have developed a semi-autonomous solution for this: the Ducktrain.

The population density in the inner cities is growing and with it the parcel volumes that are distributed there. This task could become a challenge for a delivery person on a cargo bike. Microhubs, i.e. regional
Distribution centers where the packages are temporarily stored in one place are not enough. For this reason, researchers at RWTH Aachen University have developed a partially autonomous delivery concept that supports
the so-called duck train. The wagons follow the operator. The vehicle gets its name because up to four wagons are attached to a load wheel, for example, which travels from the micro-lift to the delivery area. The driver does not have to pedal especially hard – the wagons follow the operator every step of the way. In line, but as an independent unit. “In fact, we were inspired a little by the visual language,” explains Kai Kreisköther, managing director of Droiddrive GmbH and one of the inventors of the duck train.

“We have small vehicles that form a column and follow each other. Just like baby ducks follow their mother.”

Once in the delivery area, the “ducklings” separate from the lead vehicle and hang on to the responsible delivery person. He or she can deliver the parcels on foot, because the loaded wagon also follows him or her along the delivery route.

The inventors of the duck train have been dealing with the topic of the last mile for quite some time. Kai Kreisköther, for example, has been researching this area since 2012 and the team realized early on that the traditional delivery van has a space problem in city centers and that there is a lack of parking space. This makes the route from the vehicle to the customer’s front door considerably more difficult for the delivery driver, says Kreisköther. But the situation is different for a postman. “He has his little cart that he pulls behind him and can park directly in front of the door, ring the bell, deliver the letter – why can’t the parcel carrier do the same”, asks Kreisköther. It was clear: Kep services need a small vehicle for the last few metres of delivery. For the journey from the last depot to the city, the loading volume must be as large as possible so that service providers can travel efficiently. The solution: individual wagons that are coupled together by sensors on the journey to the city and then travel to the respective delivery area. The Ducktrain could solve another problem in city logistics – namely the lack of locations for micro-depots. From there, parcels can also be delivered by cargo bikes or on foot. However, Kreisköther stresses that it is difficult for many providers to find a location in a central location. Many cities are not very cooperative in this respect. With Ducktrain, the depot could also be located outside the city gates and delivery could still take place on foot.

Moreover, the solution is not only interesting for the kep industry. The freight forwarding industry could also benefit
and use the duck train for delivery. For example, in residential areas where no vans or trucks are allowed. The “Ducks” run on electricity and are therefore quiet. They offer space for a euro pallet and have a
Payload of 300 kg. The transport volume of a ducktrain is between 2 and 8 m³, depending on the number of vehicles. The wagons are identified by a 2D laser scanner to determine who they have to follow. A stereo camera, image recognition software and gesture control are also being considered. Then the individual wagons can not only stubbornly follow the
operators follow, but also independently avoid obstacles, such as side mirrors. The Ducktrain is designed for a speed of 25 to 30 km/h. According to Kreisköther, the vehicle could also travel faster, but this is not the aim. Because even at 25 km/h, the distance from the depot to the city could be covered well and in a short time. The “Entchen” are built by the company Droiddrive, a spin-off of the RWTH Aachen. The founding team comes from the environment of Achim Kampker, who heads the Chair for Production Engineering of E-Mobility Components (PEM) there. Kampker is no stranger to last mile and electric mobility, having co-founded Streetscooter

By 2025, the Ducktrain is to be fully automatic – in other words, it will be able to travel without a command vehicle.

The first pilot tests are planned for this year in cooperation with the media company in Aachen. The concept is also to be tested in Hamburg and Berlin before the end of 2020. Next year, the Ducktrain is to be produced in small series and sent into “near-series operation with selected customers”, says Kreisköther. Incidentally, Droiddrive does not want to sell the Ducks to customers, but rather rent them out. “We are thinking about performance-based payment
“, says Kreisköther. That could be the usage per minute, for example, but also the usage per delivered package, he says. Because, says Kreisköther, one has the obligation to further develop the vehicles that are already in the field. This could concern both the software and the hardware.

By Carla Westerheide, SHIFT Mobility x DVZ Deutsche Verkehrs-Zeitung