Remote-controlled forklifts have arrived in France, courtesy of Phantom Auto

Global logistics company Geodis has tapped startup Phantom Auto to help it deploy forklifts that can be controlled remotely by human operators located hundreds, and even thousands, of miles away.

The aim is to use the technology to reduce operator fatigue — and the injuries that can occur as a result — as well as reduce the number of people physically inside warehouses, according to the Geodis. The use of remotely operated forklifts won’t replace employees — just where they work. It’s that detail that Geodis, which often has operations outside of city centers, finds appealing.

Stéphanie Hervé, chief operating officer for Geodis’ Western Europe, Middle East and Africa operations, told TechCrunch that use of the remotely operated forklifts will help the company attract a new group of workers, including those with physical disabilities. The intent isn’t to outsource workers to other countries, but to find more workers within a region, according to the company.

Under the partnership, Phantom Auto’s remote operation software is integrated into KION Group forklifts. The forklifts are equipped with 2-way audio so that remote operators, which Geodis also describes as ‘digital drivers’, can communicate with their co-workers inside the warehouses.

Geodis Phantom Auto forklift

Image Credits: Geodis

Phantom Auto and Geodis have been working together for more than two years via pilot program conducted in Levallois and Le Mans, France. This announcement signals a deeper relationship and one that could be a boon for Phantom Auto.

The initial deployment is focused on France, Hervé said. For now, Phantom Auto’s software will be used to remotely operate forklifts in the initial pilot sites of Levallois and Le Mans and will then expand throughout the country over the next year. Geodis employees at the two initial sites have already been trained to remotely operate the forklifts, Phantom Auto co-founder Elliot Katz said.  

Geodis’ footprint extends far beyond the boundaries of France. The company has some 165,000 clients in 120 countries. They own 300 warehouses, which are located throughout the world, and also provide third-party logistics services to thousands of other customers, including Amazon and Shopify.

Phantom Auto’s tie-up with Geodis is another example of the company seeking business outside of the fledging autonomous vehicle industry, which was its initial focus. The company, founded in 2017, developed vehicle-agnostic software to remotely monitor, assist operate fleets of unmanned vehicles such as forklifts, robots, trucks and passenger vehicles.

The company is adjacent to the AV industry. While AV operators rarely talk publicly about the need for teleoperations, it is viewed as a necessary support system to commercially deploy robotaxis and for other AV applications. But as autonomous vehicle developers pushed back timelines to commercialize the technology, Phantom Auto expanded into new areas.

Phantom Auto, which has raised $25 million to date, expanded a logistics business targeting sidewalks, warehouses and cargo yards, all the places where autonomy and teleoperation are being deployed today.

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