A startup called Outrider emerged from stealth today, announcing it raised $53 million in funding for its autonomous yard operations system, aimed at helping logistics hubs and warehouses with outdoor vehicle operations. The seed and Series A funding rounds were led by NEA and 8VC, respectively.
Formerly known as Azevtec, Outrider’s goal is to help distribution yards keep semi-trailers full of freight moving quickly in the space between warehouse doors and public roads. The company said many of the processes that make up yard operations are manual, inefficient, and hazardous.
“While there’s been lots of automation in other aspects of the supply chain, what happens in yard operations is almost entirely manual and inefficient,” said Andrew Smith, CEO and founder of Outrider. “So we are laser-focused on autonomous yard operations and the movement of that freight.”
Level four autonomy vehicles
Currently, there are 50,000 yard trucks operating in the U.S., which handle the transfer of freight containers and trailers from trucks at a warehouse or distribution center. The Outrider System looks to automate these yard trucks through a new electric vehicle with Level 4 autonomy features aimed to improve the safety within a distribution center yard.
Processes that the system is looking to automate includes:
- Moving trailers around the yard;
- Moving trailers to and from loading docks;
- Hitching and unhitching trailers;
- Connecting and disconnecting brake lines;
- Monitoring trailer locations.
The company said at scale, the system will “deliver yards that are more efficient, safer, and more sustainable.”
Smith said there are three main components to the system. The first is a web-based interface that allows customers to operate the yard with a dashboard that moves vehicles around the yard. The second is a modular site infrastructure that allows vehicles to operate safely around warehouse workers and other personnel. The third is automating the vehicles, through software, sensors and robotics on top of a base electric truck platform to provide the autonomy. He added the software can integrate with existing warehouse management or yard management software systems.
The company said they saw an opportunity where many other companies were looking to automate indoor warehouse operations, and other companies were looking to automate over-the-road trucks, but the transition point between those two processes – the logistics yard – still required many manual and dangerous processes. “What defines a good market for autonomy is going to be a well-defined environment, with a set of discrete repetitive tasks that need to be automated,” Smith said. “All of these pieces are in place with a yard environment. This is a controlled environment with repetitive hazardous tasks, which is a perfect application for robotic vehicles.”
“Yards are dangerous environments – essentially anywhere you have people interacting with 80,000-pound pieces of equipment, operating in all weather conditions during all hours of the day,” Smith added. “Unfortunately, yard accidents are quite frequent, so safety is core to everything we do.” Outrider is working with customers, third-party standards and outside experts to develop safety cases for the yards, in order to reduce accidents and equipment damage as trailers are moved around in relatively confined and fast-paced environments.
For example, one of the big hazards in a yard is when a driver pulls a trailer away from a loading dock while it’s still being loaded. With the Outrider system, “people inside the warehouse can communicate safely with the autonomous truck to limit how those vehicles get pulled away from the warehouse doors,” Smith said. In addition, millions of times a day, drivers are getting out of their trucks to connect and disconnect air lines, essentially brake lines on a trailer. With the Outrider system, this task is automated.
Outrider has teamed up with Georgia-Pacific and four Fortune 200 companies on pilot programs in designated sections of their distribution yards, with customers in consumer packaged goods, package deliver, manufacturing, and retail.
“We’re constantly looking for ways to transform our company and the way we get work done, especially making work safer and more efficient and productive,” said Annant Patel, vice president of automation transformation at Georgia-Pacific. “Yard operations has been one of our opportunities, and Outrider has been a great partner to help us automate our pilot site.”
Sustainability, asset tracking
In addition to the safety aspect of the Outrider system, Smith said the platform is able to provide more sustainability through the use of its electric fleet of trucks, as well as help companies track assets through a yard environment.
“One of the issues is when people are dropping off trailers all over the place and moving them around a yard, it’s easy to misplace assets,” Smith said. “Our systems are essentially vocal sensors that are able to keep track of assets in a yard perfectly, and then provide that information through our web-based interface back to the people operating the yard.”
On the sustainability front, Smith said the electric vehicle platform is more eco-friendly than the current state of diesel fuel-powered vehicles that tend to idle while waiting to move trailers a few hundred feet. He said while the company could retrofit existing vehicles to add autonomy, they want to focus on creating next-generation yard equipment instead of adding autonomy to fossil fuel dependent and less efficient vehicles.
Investors in the company said they were impressed with the Golden, Colo.-based Outrider’s team of 75 employees, which includes 50 engineers solely focused on distribution yard automation. “Outrider is introducing the transformational technology required for large, logistics-dependent enterprises to keep pace,” said Jake Medwell, a founding partner at 8VC. “We consider hundreds of investment opportunities in the logistics space every year. Our decision to be an early investor in Outrider was an easy one. Andrew’s vision and plan for the industry are highly compelling, and he’s mobilized an unmatched team to execute.
Team members have more than 100 years of experience in ground-vehicle autonomy, with credentials from companies and universities that include Lockheed Martin, iRobot, Tesla, NVIDIA, Cruise Automation, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgia Tech, Purdue University, Johns Hopkins University, and Northwestern University.
In addition to funding from NEA and 8VC, the company includes investors from Koch Disruptive Technologies, Fraser McCombs Capital, Prologis, Schematic Ventures, Loup Ventures, and Goose Society of Texas.