Forklift drivers wanted: can work remotely

Phantom Auto’s technology allows ‘digital drivers’, as Geodis calls them, to sit at a console and operate a forklift from thousands of miles away. — Phantom Auto/Geodis

Logistics giant Geodis SA says it plans to begin using remote-operated forklifts in its warehouses. The Paris-based company announced early Wednesday that it has formed a partnership with Silicon Valley startup Phantom Auto to supply tele-operations.

The two companies began working together in 2019 to test remote-operated forklifts in a warehouse in Le Mans, France. With that pilot successfully concluded, Geodis is working on a plan to deploy the technology commercially, according to Stéphanie Hervé, the company’s chief operation officer for Western Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

“We need to do it step by step,” said Hervé in a call last week. “We will not replace everything at one time.”

Phantom Auto’s technology allows “digital drivers”, as Geodis calls them, to sit at a console and operate a forklift from thousands of miles away. “I am here in my office in Paris,” said Hervé, “And I can see the warehouse with a 360-degree view. I hear everything. I have a steering wheel. I have pedals. And I can drive the forklift.”

Founded in 2017, Phantom originally planned to provide remote assistance for fleets of self-driving cars, but has found more immediate use for its technology in logistics and delivery. In the US, remote operators use Phantom’s system to help food delivery robots navigate bumpy sidewalks and to tow trailers from dock to dock at shipping yards.

German manufacturer Kion Group plans to build forklifts under its Fenwick brand that will be enabled to run Phantom Auto’s software. Geodis would then purchase the forklifts from Kion and pay Phantom a fee for the software. “We call what we do forklift-as-a-service,” said Phantom co-founder Elliot Katz. The remote operators would work for Geodis, which operates in 67 countries.

Booming e-commerce, said Hervé, has made finding forklift drivers difficult, especially for work sites that are far from cities. She expects remote operations will help the company to recruit and retain workers from a wider pool of applicants, including the disabled.

“It’s really to make our jobs attractive for young talent and digital natives,” said Hervé.

Phantom’s system also allows for efficiency gains – the same driver can move pallets in Marseille in the morning and in Avignon in the afternoon – as well as greater safety, as drivers will be far removed from any mishaps. – Bloomberg

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