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Title:
AUTONOMOUS CONTAINER TRANSPORTATION VEHICLE
Document Type and Number:
WIPO Patent Application WO/2017/207978
Kind Code:
A1
Abstract:
An autonomous container transportation vehicle (100) is disclosed, comprising a chassis (101) configured to receive a container to be transported, a pair of wheels (102) coupled to the chassis and configured to rotate about a common axis, at least one electric motor (103) configured to drive at least one of said pair of wheels, a balance control unit (804) configured to maintain the chassis in an upright position while the pair of wheels are being driven, and a vehicle controller (104) configured to receive vehicle control commands from an external apparatus and to drive the container transportation vehicle in accordance with the received vehicle control commands. Two or more of the autonomous container transportation vehicles (100) can be combined with a container (111) to form a transportation apparatus (110), the wheelbase of which can be determined by appropriate spacing of the separate vehicles. Apparatus and methods for managing a plurality of the autonomous container transportation vehicles are also disclosed.

Inventors:
SVERDLOV, Denis (London Greater London W1G 0EF, W1G 0EF, GB)
SAINT, Glenn (Banbury CrossSoutham Road, Banbury Oxfordshire OX16 2SN, OX16 2SN, GB)
Application Number:
GB2017/051537
Publication Date:
December 07, 2017
Filing Date:
May 30, 2017
Export Citation:
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Assignee:
ARRIVAL LIMITED (Unit 2, Banbury CrossSoutham Road, Banbury OX16 2SN, OX5 1QU, GB)
International Classes:
B66F9/06; B62D53/08; B66F3/46; B66F9/075; B66F9/18
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
CORK, Robert et al. (Venner Shipley LLP, The Surrey Technology CentreThe Surrey Research Park,40 Occam Roa, Guildford Surrey GU2 7YG, GU2 7YG, GB)
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Claims:
Claims

1. An autonomous container transportation vehicle (100) comprising:

a chassis (101) configured to receive a container to be transported;

a pair of wheels (102) coupled to the chassis and arranged to rotate about a common axis;

at least one electric motor (103) configured to drive at least one of said pair of wheels;

a balance control unit (804) configured to maintain the chassis in an upright position while the pair of wheels are being driven; and

a vehicle controller (104) for receiving vehicle control commands from an external apparatus, the vehicle controller being configured to drive the container transportation vehicle in accordance with one or more received vehicle control commands.

2. The autonomous container transportation vehicle of claim 1, wherein the vehicle controller is configured to determine a route to reach a destination defined by the one or more received vehicle control commands. 3. The autonomous container transportation vehicle of claim 1, wherein the vehicle controller is configured to follow a route defined by the one or more received vehicle control commands.

4. The autonomous container transportation vehicle of any one of the preceding claims, further comprising:

a lifting mechanism for lifting the container to be transported.

5. The autonomous container transportation vehicle of claim 4, wherein the lifting mechanism comprises:

a levering member connected to the chassis by a pivot, the levering member being configured to engage with a lifting point on the container,

wherein the levering member and the pivot are arranged such that when the container transportation vehicle is driven towards the container with the levering member engaged with the lifting point, the levering member is caused to rotate about the pivot and thereby lift the container.

6. The autonomous container transportation vehicle of any one of the preceding claims, further comprising:

a container coupling mechanism configured to engage with a coupling point on the container.

7. The autonomous container transportation vehicle of claim 6 when dependent on claim 5, wherein the container coupling mechanism is disposed so as to align with the coupling point after the container has been lifted by the levering member. 8. The autonomous container transportation vehicle of claim 6 or 7, further comprising:

a positioning system for aligning the container coupling mechanism with the coupling point. 9. The autonomous container transportation vehicle of claim 8, wherein the positioning system includes a ranging mechanism for determining a distance between the container transportation vehicle and the coupling point.

10. The autonomous container transportation vehicle of any one of claims 6 to 9, wherein the container coupling mechanism comprises an ISO 1161:1984 twistlock connector for coupling to a corner casting on an intermodal container.

11. The autonomous container transportation vehicle of any one of the preceding claims, configured to transport an intermodal container.

12. The autonomous container transportation vehicle of any one of the preceding claims, wherein the chassis comprises:

a fifth-wheel coupling mechanism for coupling the container transportation vehicle to a trailer to be transported by the container transportation vehicle.

13. A transportation apparatus comprising:

a container for carrying goods to be transported; and

at least two autonomous container transportation vehicles according to any one of claims 1 to 11, the at least two autonomous container transportation vehicles being disposed so as to support the container during transportation.

14. The transportation apparatus of claim 13, wherein the at least two autonomous container transportation vehicles are physically separate and laterally spaced apart from one another, such that a wheelbase of the transportation apparatus is determined by the spacing between the at least two autonomous container transportation vehicles.

15. A transportation apparatus comprising:

an autonomous container transportation vehicle according to claim 12; and a trailer coupled to the fifth-wheel coupling mechanism of the autonomous container transportation vehicle.

16. Apparatus for managing a plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles according to any one of claims 1 to 12, the apparatus comprising:

a vehicle communication unit configured to communicate with the plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles; and

a vehicle management unit configured to determine a number of autonomous container transportation vehicles to be assigned to a container based on one or more physical properties of the container, in response to a requirement for said container to be transported to a desired location, assign one or more of the plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles to the container in accordance with the determined number, and control the vehicle communication unit to transmit vehicle control commands which cause the assigned one or more autonomous container transportation vehicles to drive to the container and transport the container to the desired location.

17. The apparatus of claim 16, wherein the physical properties of the container include one or more of:

a physical dimension of the container;

a loaded weight of the container; and

an unloaded weight of the container. 18. The apparatus of claim 16 or 17, further comprising:

a vehicle location monitoring unit configured to receive and store information identifying current locations of the plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles,

wherein the vehicle management unit is configured to take into account the current locations of the plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles when assigning a container transportation vehicle to the container, by assigning an autonomous container transportation vehicle that is closer to a current location of the container in preference to an autonomous container transportation vehicle that is further from the current location of the container. 19. A system comprising:

one or more autonomous container transportation vehicles according to any one of claims 1 to 12; and

a vehicle management unit comprising the apparatus according to any one of claims 16 to 18.

20. A method of managing a plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles according to any one of claims 1 to 12, the method comprising:

in response to a requirement for a container to be transported to a desired location, determining a number of autonomous container transportation vehicles to be assigned to the container based on one or more physical properties of the container; assigning one or more of the plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles to the container in accordance with the determined number; and

transmitting vehicle control commands which cause the assigned one or more autonomous container transportation vehicles to drive to the container and transport the container to the desired location.

21. A computer-readable storage medium arranged to store computer program instructions which, when executed, perform a method according to claim 20.

Description:
AUTONOMOUS CONTAINER TRANSPORTATION VEHICLE Technical Field

The present invention relates to apparatuses and methods for autonomous container transportation systems.

Background

Many different types of goods are transported via containers such as intermodal containers, which are often stored in large numbers at commercial docks and rail freight depots. In such environments, it is common for containers to be arranged in stacks that are many containers high. Managing containers in such an environment represents a logistical and physical challenge, as individual containers must be able to be quickly identified and moved to new locations with minimal delay. Containers are typically moved by overhead cranes, which pick up containers one at a time from a stack or a transport vessel, and deposit the container onto a different stack or another transport vessel. However, any given facility will usually only have a relatively small number of cranes due to their physical size and high cost. Accordingly, there is a limit to the number of containers that can be moved at any given time. There is therefore a need for a more efficient container management and transportation system.

The invention is made in this context. Summary of the Invention

According to a first aspect of the present invention, there is provided an autonomous container transportation vehicle comprising: a chassis configured to receive a container to be transported; a pair of wheels coupled to the chassis and arranged to rotate about a common axis; at least one electric motor configured to drive at least one of said pair of wheels; a balance control unit (804) configured to maintain the chassis in an upright position while the pair of wheels are being driven; and a vehicle controller for receiving vehicle control commands from an external apparatus, the vehicle controller being configured to drive the container transportation vehicle in accordance with one or more received vehicle control commands.

In some embodiments the container transportation vehicle is configured to transport an intermodal container, commonly referred to as a shipping container. By

'autonomous', it is meant that the vehicle controller is capable of driving the container transportation vehicle without human intervention. For example, the vehicle controller may be configured to apply pathfinding algorithms to automatically determine a route to take in order to reach a destination, and/or may include a collision-avoidance system to determine the proximity of obstacles to the vehicle and take necessary action to avoid a collision, such as braking, accelerating or steering the vehicle.

In some embodiments according to the first aspect, the vehicle controller can be configured to determine a route to reach a destination defined by the one or more received vehicle control commands. In other embodiments, the vehicle controller is configured to follow a route defined by the one or more received vehicle control commands.

In some embodiments according to the first aspect, the autonomous container transportation vehicle further comprises a lifting mechanism for lifting the container to be transported. The lifting mechanism may comprise a levering member connected to the chassis by a pivot, the levering member being configured to engage with a lifting point on the container, wherein the levering member and the pivot are arranged such that when the autonomous container transportation vehicle is driven towards the container with the levering member engaged with the lifting point, the levering member is caused to rotate about the pivot and thereby lift the container.

In some embodiments according to the first aspect, the autonomous container transportation vehicle further comprises a container coupling mechanism configured to engage with a coupling point on the container. For example, the container coupling mechanism can be disposed so as to align with the coupling point after the container has been lifted by the levering member. In some embodiments, the container coupling mechanism comprises an ISO 1161:1984 twistlock connector for coupling to a corner casting on an intermodal container.

In some embodiments according to the first aspect, the autonomous container transportation vehicle further comprises a positioning system for aligning the container coupling mechanism with the coupling point. The positioning system may include a ranging mechanism for determining a distance between the autonomous container transportation vehicle and the coupling point. In some embodiments according to the first aspect, the chassis of the autonomous container transportation vehicle comprises a fifth-wheel coupling mechanism for coupling the container transportation vehicle to a trailer to be transported by the container transportation vehicle.

According to a second aspect of the present invention, there is provided a

transportation apparatus comprising: a container for carrying goods to be transported; and at least two autonomous container transportation vehicles, the at least two autonomous container transportation vehicles being disposed so as to support the container during transportation.

In some embodiments according to the second aspect, the at least two autonomous container transportation vehicles are physically separate and laterally spaced apart from one another, such that a wheelbase of the transportation apparatus is determined by the spacing between the at least two autonomous container transportation vehicles.

According to a third aspect of the present invention, there is provided a transportation apparatus comprising: an autonomous container transportation vehicle comprising a fifth-wheel coupling mechanism; and a trailer coupled to the fifth-wheel coupling mechanism of the autonomous container transportation vehicle.

According to a fourth aspect of the present invention, there is provided apparatus for managing a plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles according to the first aspect, the apparatus comprising: a vehicle communication unit configured to communicate with the plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles; and a vehicle management unit configured to determine a number of autonomous container transportation vehicles to be assigned to a container based on one or more physical properties of the container, in response to a requirement for said container to be transported to a desired location, assign one or more of the plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles to the container, and control the vehicle

communication unit to transmit vehicle control commands which cause the assigned one or more autonomous container transportation vehicles to drive to the container and transport the container to the desired location. In some embodiments according to the fourth aspect, the physical properties of the container can include one or more of: a physical dimension of the container, such as the length or width of the container; a loaded weight of the container; and an unloaded weight of the container.

In some embodiments according to the fourth aspect, the apparatus further comprises a vehicle location monitoring unit configured to receive and store information identifying current locations of the plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles, wherein the vehicle management unit is configured to take into account the current locations of the plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles when assigning a container transportation vehicle to the container, by assigning an autonomous container transportation vehicle that is closer to a current location of the container in preference to an autonomous container transportation vehicle that is further from the current location of the container.

A system for transporting containers can comprise one or more autonomous container transportation vehicles according to the first aspect, and a vehicle management unit comprising the apparatus according to the fourth aspect.

According to a fifth aspect of the present invention, there is provided a method of managing a plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles according to the first aspect, the method comprising: in response to a requirement for a container to be transported to a desired location, determining a number of autonomous container transportation vehicles to be assigned to the container based on one or more physical properties of the container; assigning one or more of the plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles to the container in accordance with the determined number; and transmitting vehicle control commands which cause the assigned one or more autonomous container transportation vehicles to drive to the container and transport the container to the desired location.

According to a sixth aspect of the present invention, there is provided a computer- readable storage medium arranged to store computer program instructions which, when executed, perform a method according to the fifth aspect.

Brief Description of the Drawings

Embodiments of the present invention will now be described, byway of example only, with reference to the accompanying drawings, in which: Figure l illustrates an autonomous container transportation vehicle, according to an embodiment of the present invention;

Figure 2 illustrates a transportation apparatus comprising two of the autonomous container transportation vehicles of Fig. l, according to an embodiment of the present invention;

Figure 3 illustrates an autonomous container transportation vehicle, according to an embodiment of the present invention;

Figure 4 illustrates a transportation apparatus comprising two of the autonomous container transportation vehicles of Fig. 3, according to an embodiment of the present invention;

Figure 5 illustrates an autonomous container transportation vehicle, according to an embodiment of the present invention;

Figure 6 illustrates a process of lifting a container using two of the autonomous container transportation vehicles of Fig. 5, according to an embodiment of the present invention;

Figure 7 illustrates a transportation apparatus comprising two of the autonomous container transportation vehicles of Fig. 5, after a container has been lifted and coupled to the autonomous container transportation vehicles;

Figure 8 illustrates a container transportation vehicle and vehicle management apparatus, according to an embodiment of the present invention;

Figure 9 illustrates a system comprising a plurality of container transportation vehicles and a vehicle management apparatus, according to an embodiment of the present invention;

Figure 10 is a flowchart showing steps in a method of managing a plurality of container transportation vehicles, according to an embodiment of the present invention;

Figure 11 illustrates an autonomous container transportation vehicle for moving a trailer, according to an embodiment of the present invention; and

Figures 12A and 12B illustrate a transportation apparatus comprising the autonomous container transportation vehicle of Fig. 11 coupled to a trailer, according to an embodiment of the present invention.

Detailed Description

In the following detailed description, only certain exemplary embodiments of the present invention have been shown and described, simply by way of illustration. As those skilled in the art would realise, the described embodiments may be modified in various different ways, all without departing from the scope of the present invention. Accordingly, the drawings and description are to be regarded as illustrative in nature and not restrictive. Like reference numerals designate like elements throughout the specification. Container transportation vehicles according to embodiments of the present invention are configured to drive autonomously in response to vehicle control commands received from an external controller. The vehicle control commands may define a destination, for example using an address or coordinates in a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) such as the GPS, GLONASS or Galileo systems. In some embodiments the vehicle control commands may define a route to be followed by the autonomous container transport vehicle. In other embodiments the vehicle may be capable of determining the route itself, for example using a suitable pathfinding algorithm and a stored map of the local area.

By 'autonomous', it is meant that the container transportation vehicle is capable of steering and driving itself without manual intervention. In some embodiments, the autonomous container transportation vehicle includes a collision avoidance system for detecting objects in the vicinity of the vehicle and automatically steering, accelerating and/ or braking the vehicle to avoid a collision with the detected objects. The objects may include stationary obstacles and mobile objects, such as other autonomous container transportation vehicles. When the vehicle control commands define a route to be followed, the autonomous container transportation vehicle may be configured to locally deviate from the route so as to avoid collisions, or may select a more efficient route if one is available.

In some embodiments the autonomous container transportation vehicle may be configured to follow a predefined route determined by markings or tracks laid out in the area in which the vehicle is operating. For example, different coloured markings on a road surface or floor in a warehouse can be used to define preset routes to different locations. The autonomous container transportation vehicle can include an optical system configured to detect the different coloured markings, and can follow the route corresponding to a destination identified by a received vehicle control command.

Referring now to Figs, l and 2, an autonomous container transportation vehicle is illustrated according to an embodiment of the present invention. The autonomous container vehicle of the present embodiment is configured to transport intermodal containers, which are commonly referred to as shipping containers. Intermodal containers come in various types and sizes. Common dimensions for intermodal containers are 6 metres (m) or 12 m in length, and 2.6 m or 2.9 m in height, although other dimensions are possible. A fully-loaded intermodal container may weigh several metric tonnes, for example up to or above 5,000 kilograms (kg). Embodiments of the present invention are not limited to transporting intermodal containers, and in other embodiments an autonomous container transportation vehicle may be configured to transport a different type of container. For example, in some embodiments an autonomous container transportation vehicle may be configured to transport packaging boxes of varying sizes in a warehouse environment.

As shown in Fig. 1, the autonomous container transportation vehicle 100 of the present embodiment comprises a chassis 101, a pair of wheels 102 coupled to the chassis 101, one or more electric motors 103 configured to drive the wheels 102, and a power supply 104 configured to supply electrical power to the one or more electric motors 103.

Various types of power supply 104 may be used depending on the particular

embodiment. For example, the power supply 104 may comprise a battery, a fuel cell, a photovoltaic panel, or a petrol or diesel generator. In some embodiments the power supply 104 may be removable, and an autonomous container transportation vehicle may be supplied without a power supply installed.

The chassis 101 is configured to receive the container to be transported. For example, the chassis 101 may comprise a platform on which the container can rest, as in the present embodiment. In other embodiments, the chassis may be shaped so as to receive a specific part of the container.

The autonomous container transportation vehicle of the present embodiment further comprises a balance control unit and a vehicle controller, which are not shown in Fig. 1. The balance control unit and vehicle controller are schematically illustrated in Fig. 8, which is described in more detail later in this document. The balance control unit is configured to maintain the chassis in an upright position while the pair of wheels are being driven. The balance control unit enables the autonomous container

transportation vehicle 100 to be self-balancing despite only including two wheels, which would otherwise be an unstable configuration. The balance control unit may, for example, be configured to detect changes in orientation of the vehicle 100 and controlling the torque of the one or more electric motors 103 so as to drive the wheels 102 in a direction which counteracts the change in orientation. By continuously monitoring the orientation and controlling the motor torque in this way, the vehicle loo can be made self-balancing. In other embodiments, the balance control unit may be a gyroscope. Self-balancing two-wheeled vehicles which can be ridden by a human operator are known, and a detailed description of the self-balancing aspect will not be provided here so as to avoid obscuring the present inventive concept.

The vehicle controller is capable of receiving the vehicle control commands from an external apparatus, and is configured to drive the autonomous container transportation vehicle 100 in accordance with the received vehicle control commands. Depending on the embodiment, the vehicle control commands may be received wirelessly or via a wired connection. For example, in some embodiments the vehicle controller can include a suitable wireless interface unit such as a WiFi network interface or a mobile telecommunications interface. In other embodiments the autonomous container transportation vehicle ιοο may be connected to the external apparatus via a wired connection, such as an umbilical tether, an overhead grid of conductive wires to which the autonomous container transportation vehicle is connected via a sliding electrical pickup, or a system of conductive tracks set into a surface on which the autonomous container transportation vehicle is being driven.

The vehicle controller may control the one or more electric motors 103 to drive both wheels 102 simultaneously, or may control the one or more electric motors 103 to drive the wheels 102 independently in order to steer the vehicle. Some embodiments may comprise a separate motor for each wheel, configured to drive the wheels

independently. For example, driving only the right-hand wheel in a forward direction will cause the autonomous container transportation vehicle 100 to turn to the left. In other embodiments, the autonomous container transportation vehicle 100 may further comprise a steering mechanism capable of adjusting an angle of one or both wheels 102 in order to steer the vehicle in a particular direction.

In some embodiments the autonomous container transportation vehicle may only comprise a single electric motor but may still be capable of driving each wheel independently. For example, the electric motor may be configured to turn a driveshaft, and each wheel may be connected to the driveshaft via a separate gearbox in order to transfer power from the shared driveshaft to individual wheels as and when required. As shown in Fig. l, the autonomous container transportation vehicle 100 of the present embodiment further comprises a container coupling mechanism 105 configured to engage with a coupling point on the container. Since the autonomous container transportation vehicle 100 of the present embodiment is configured to transport intermodal containers, the container coupling mechanism of the present embodiment comprises an ISO 1161:1984 twistlock connector for coupling to a corner casting on an intermodal container. Other suitable coupling mechanisms may be provided in other embodiments, depending on the type of container that is to be transported by the autonomous container transportation vehicle.

Depending on the embodiment, the container coupling mechanism 105 can be configured to be engaged automatically by the autonomous container transportation vehicle 100, for example by using solenoids or servo motors to actuate the container coupling mechanism 105, or may be manually engaged by a human operator once the container is in position.

In other embodiments, a container coupling mechanism may not be provided. For example, when the chassis of an autonomous container transportation vehicle includes a platform on which the container rests, as in the present embodiment, a container coupling mechanism may be omitted if a frictional force between the chassis and the container is sufficient to keep the container in position during transportation. Also, a container coupling mechanism may not be required if the container transportation vehicle will only be driven at relatively slow speeds. The autonomous container transportation vehicle 100 of the present embodiment may be capable of transporting containers up to a certain size, depending on the mass of the container and the strength of the electric motors 103. In some embodiments, the autonomous container transportation vehicle can form the basis of a modular system in which multiple such vehicles can cooperate to transport larger containers. Figure 2 illustrates an example of a transportation apparatus comprising two of the autonomous container transportation vehicles of Fig. 1, according to an embodiment of the present invention. The transportation apparatus 110 comprises two of the autonomous container transportation vehicles 100 shown in Fig. 1, coupled to an intermodal container 111 for carrying goods to be transported. The two autonomous container transportation vehicles 100 are disposed at opposite ends of the container 111 so as to support the container 111 during transportation. Although two autonomous container transportation vehicles 100 are illustrated in Fig. 2, in other embodiments a transportation apparatus may be formed from more than two autonomous container transportation vehicles loo. For example, one or more additional container transportation vehicles may be coupled to either of the

autonomous container transportation vehicles loo shown in Fig. 2 if more power is required to move the container in than is available from just two autonomous container transportation vehicles. In other embodiments, additional autonomous container transportation vehicles may be configured to sit beneath the container in and support the base of the container in. This may be particularly useful when transporting a long container, to prevent the container from sagging or buckling.

In some embodiments two or more autonomous container transportation vehicles may be physically coupled together to form a large vehicle, before receiving the container to be transported. However, in other embodiments the individual autonomous container transportation vehicles may remain physically separate, as in the embodiment shown in Fig. 2. By keeping the autonomous container transportation vehicles physically separate, an arbitrary wheelbase can be provided by appropriately spacing the autonomous container transportation vehicles. This enables a container of any length to be transported.

Referring now to Figs. 3 and 4, an autonomous container transportation vehicle is illustrated according to another embodiment of the present invention. Like the autonomous container transportation vehicle 100 of Fig. 1, the autonomous container transportation vehicle 300 of the present embodiment comprises a chassis 301, a pair of wheels 302 coupled to the chassis 301, one or more electric motors 303 configured to drive the wheels 302, a power supply 304 configured to supply electrical power to the one or more electric motors 303, and a container coupling mechanism 305. The autonomous container transportation vehicle 300 of the present embodiment further comprises a balance control unit and vehicle controller as described above with reference to the embodiment of Fig. 1. For the sake of brevity, a detailed description of similar aspects of both embodiments will not be repeated here.

The autonomous container transportation vehicle of Fig. 3 differs from the

embodiment of Fig. 1 in that the chassis 301 comprises a bracket that is shaped to receive an end of the intermodal container 311, as shown in Fig. 4. When two of the autonomous container transportation vehicles 300 of the present embodiment are coupled to a container 311 to form a transportation apparatus 310, as shown in Fig. 4, the container 311 sits lower down in comparison to the embodiment of Fig. 2. This arrangement can provide a more stable transportation apparatus 310, by lowering the centre of gravity. On the other hand, the embodiment of Fig. 2 offers higher ground clearance between the autonomous container transportation vehicles 100 and may be better suited for uneven terrain.

Referring now to Figs. 5, 6 and 7, an autonomous container transportation vehicle is illustrated according to a further embodiment of the present invention. As with the embodiments of Figs. 1 to 4, the autonomous container transportation vehicle 500 of the present embodiment comprises a chassis 501, a pair of wheels 502 coupled to the chassis 501, one or more electric motors 503 configured to drive the wheels 502, a power supply 504 configured to supply electrical power to the one or more electric motors 503, a container coupling mechanism 505, a balance control unit and a vehicle controller. Again, a detailed description of similar aspects will not be repeated here.

In the embodiments shown in Figs. 1 to 4, a container can be lowered into place on the autonomous container transportation vehicle 100, 300 by a suitable mechanism such as a crane or forklift. The autonomous container transportation vehicle 500 of the present embodiment further comprises a lifting mechanism for lifting the container to be transported, removing the need for separate apparatus to lift the container.

The lifting mechanism of the present embodiment comprises a levering member connected to the chassis by a pivot. The levering member comprises two arms 506a, 506b each connected to the chassis by a pivot, and a crosspiece 507 joining the ends of the two arms 506a, 506b. In other embodiments a different arrangement may be provided, for example, the levering member could comprise a single arm without a crosspiece. Furthermore, in other embodiments a different lifting mechanism altogether may be used, without any levering members. For example, in another embodiment a pneumatic, hydraulic or electric forklift lifting mechanism can be used, instead of a levering member.

Figures 6 and 7 illustrate a process of lifting a container using two of the autonomous container transportation vehicles of Fig. 5. The levering member of each autonomous container transportation vehicle 500 is configured to engage with a lifting point near the top of the container 511. The levering member and the pivot are arranged such that when one of the container transportation vehicles 500 is driven towards the container 511 with the crosspiece 507 engaged with the lifting point, the levering member is caused to rotate about the pivot and thereby lift the container 511. Once the container 511 has been lifted into position, the container coupling mechanisms 505 are disposed so as to align with corner castings on the intermodal container 511, allowing the container 511 to be coupled to the autonomous container transportation vehicles 500. In this way, a transportation apparatus 510 similar to the ones shown in Figs. 2 and 4 can be assembled without the need for separate lifting equipment.

Referring now to Fig. 8, a container transportation vehicle 800 and vehicle

management apparatus 820 are schematically illustrated, according to an embodiment of the present invention. Any of the autonomous container transportation vehicles described above may include any of the features of the autonomous container transportation vehicle 800 shown in Fig. 8.

The autonomous container transportation vehicle 800 comprises a vehicle controller 801, a positioning system 802 for aligning the container coupling mechanism with the coupling point, one or more electric motors 803, and a balance control unit 804. The functions of the vehicle controller 801, electric motors 803 and balance control unit 804 have been described above, and a detailed explanation will not be repeated here.

In the present embodiment the positioning system 802 includes a ranging mechanism, for example a light detection and ranging (LIDAR) system, for determining a distance between the container transportation vehicle and a corresponding coupling point on the container. The positioning system 802 may further comprise an image capture device, for example a digital camera, arranged so as to capture an image in the vicinity of the container coupling mechanism as the container and the vehicle are being moved into position. A shape recognition algorithm can be used to detect the relative positions of the container coupling mechanism and the coupling point in the captured image.

Information about the relative positions can be fed back to the vehicle controller, which can control the electric motors 803 to drive and/or steer the vehicle as required in order to bring the container coupling mechanism and the coupling point into alignment. It will be understood that these are merely a few examples of types of positioning system that may be used, and in other embodiments a positioning system may include a different type of sensor, for example an ultrasound sensor to measure the distance between the container and the vehicle.

Being able to determine the distance between the container transportation vehicle and a corresponding coupling point on the container can allow the vehicle to be quickly driven into position and brake just before contact with the container, reducing the speed of approach to avoid damage to the vehicle or the container. However, in some embodiments a positioning system may not determine the actual distance between the container transportation vehicle and a corresponding coupling point. For example, image analysis software can be used to automatically align the container coupling mechanism and the coupling point whilst the vehicle and the container are separated, and the vehicle controller 801 can then slowly drive the vehicle towards the container until the container coupling mechanism engages with the coupling point. The vehicle management apparatus 820 comprises a vehicle communication unit 821 configured to communicate with the plurality of container transportation vehicles, a vehicle management unit 822 configured to assign one or more of the plurality of container transportation vehicles to a container, and a vehicle location monitoring unit 823 configured to receive and store information identifying current locations of the plurality of container transportation vehicles.

An example of an environment in which the vehicle management apparatus may operate is shown in Fig. 9, which illustrates a system comprising a plurality of container transportation vehicles and a vehicle management apparatus. In the present example the system is installed in a container yard, for example at a commercial port or freight depot. The system comprises the vehicle management apparatus 920, a plurality of autonomous container transportation vehicles 900 configured to communicate remotely with the vehicle management apparatus 920 through the vehicle

communication unit, and a plurality of containers 911.

The vehicle management apparatus 920 can assign one or more of the plurality of container transportation vehicles 900 to a particular container 911. In some embodiments the vehicle management apparatus 920 may transmit vehicle control commands to cause a plurality of the autonomous container transportation vehicles to cooperatively transport a container, forming a transportation apparatus 910 similarly to the embodiments described above with reference to Figs. 2, 4 and 7. A method performed by the vehicle management apparatus 920 is shown in Fig. 10, according to an embodiment of the present invention. In some embodiments the method may be implemented by computer program instructions stored on computer- readable memory in the vehicle management unit 822.

First, in step S1001 a request to move a container to a new location is received. The request may be generated automatically according to a pre-programmed schedule, or may be manually input or received from another source. The request may include information for identifying the container (e.g. a serial number or other suitable ID), and/or a current location of the container, and/or the destination to which the container is to be transported.

Next, in response to the request to move the container 911, the vehicle management unit 920 is configured to check the physical properties of the container in step S1002, such as the physical dimensions of the container, a loaded weight of the container, and/ or an unloaded weight of the container. For example, the vehicle management unit 920 may query a database which stores information about physical properties of different containers and an associated serial number or other ID of each container. Alternatively, the request itself may specify the physical properties. In some embodiments step S1002 can be omitted, for example, when all containers in the system have the same physical properties.

Next, in step S1003 the vehicle management unit 920 is configured to determine the number of autonomous container transportation vehicles to assign to the container. The number may depend on factors such as the size and/ or mass of the container, and may take into account the route on which the container is to be transported. For example, if the container is to be transported at high speed or up a steep incline, more vehicles may be assigned so that more power is available.

Then, in step S1004 the vehicle management unit 920 identifies the individual autonomous container transportation vehicles to be assigned to the container. In the present embodiment the vehicle management unit 920 takes into account the location information stored in the vehicle location monitoring unit 823, and preferentially assigns vehicles that are closer to the container. Once a vehicle has been assigned in step S1004, the vehicle management unit 920 may flag that vehicle as 'unavailable' until the container has been transported to the desired location. Any vehicles that were assigned to the container can then be flagged as 'available' and may subsequently be assigned to a new container. Then, in step S1005 the vehicle management unit 920 is configured to control the vehicle communication unit 821 to transmit vehicle control commands which cause the assigned one or more autonomous container transportation vehicles 900 to drive to the container 911 and transport the container 911 to the desired location. Referring now to Figs. 11, 12A and 12B, a container transportation vehicle 1100 for moving a trailer 1111 is illustrated according to an embodiment of the present invention. As with the embodiments of Figs. 1 to 5, the autonomous container transportation vehicle 1100 of the present embodiment comprises a chassis 1101, a pair of wheels 1102 coupled to the chassis 1101, one or more electric motors 1103 configured to drive the wheels 1102, a power supply 1104 configured to supply electrical power to the one or more electric motors 1103, a balance control unit and a vehicle controller. Again, a detailed description of similar aspects will not be repeated here.

In the embodiment of Figs. 11 and 12, the autonomous container transportation vehicle 1100 further comprises a fifth-wheel coupling mechanism 1105 for coupling the container transportation vehicle 1100 to a trailer 1111 to be transported by the container transportation vehicle 1100. The fifth-wheel coupling mechanism 1105 may include a lifting mechanism for lifting the front end of the trailer 1111 once the container transportation vehicle 1100 has been coupled to the trailer 1111. In the present embodiment, the lifting mechanism comprises a moveable frame 1106 which supports the fifth-wheel coupling mechanism 1105. The height of the frame 1106 within the chassis 1101 can be adjusted by means of a suitable driving mechanism, such as a hydraulic ram or a rack and pinion mechanism. Depending on the embodiment, the lifting mechanism may be automated or may be manually operated.

Figures 12A and 12B illustrate an example of a transportation apparatus comprising the autonomous container transportation vehicle of Fig. 11 coupled to a trailer 1111, according to an embodiment of the present invention. The transportation apparatus 1110 comprises the autonomous container transportation vehicle 1100 shown in Fig. 11, coupled to a trailer 1111 via the fifth-wheel coupling mechanism 1105. The trailer 1111 may, for example, be a flat-bed semi-trailer configured to carry a container to be transported. Alternatively, the container may be integrated with the trailer 1111, for example as in a box trailer or a curtain-side trailer. Figure 12A illustrates the transportation apparatus 1110 with the lifting mechanism 1106 in a lowered position, in which a support foot 1112 of the trailer 1111 is resting on the ground. Figure 12B illustrates the transportation apparatus 1110 with the lifting mechanism 1106 in a raised position, such that the support foot 1112 of the trailer 1111 is lifted off the ground, thereby enabling the trailer 1111 to be moved by the autonomous container

transportation vehicle 1100.

Whilst certain embodiments of the invention have been described herein with reference to the drawings, it will be understood that many variations and modifications will be possible without departing from the scope of the invention as defined in the

accompanying claims. In particular, it will be understood that any features that have described herein in relation to a specific embodiment may readily be combined with any features of any of the other described embodiments.