In honeybee waggle dance, clues to last-mile route optimization


  • Vancouver B.C. company draws on “bee algorithm” to make route optimization accessible for last-mile delivery fleets.

Marc Kuo was working for an investment bank in Hong Kong using algorithms to trade on the stock market when he decided he wanted to dedicate his energy and talent to a more socially responsible profession. So in 2016 he launched Routific, a route optimizaton company aimed at improving the efficiency of last-mile delivery, saving companies money, and cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. 

“I wanted to make a large environmental impact on the planet,” Kuo told FreightWaves.

Route optimization is hardly a new discipline. But while large companies have long been able to take advantage of delivery management software, smaller fleets have been slower to get on board.

Of the 11,000 small to medium-size businesses Routific surveyed after launching, 72% were still plotting routes by hand, according to Kuo. Factor in the huge increase in e-commerce, he said, and both the waste in the last-mile delivery segment and the corresponding potential savings are enormous.

Carving out a niche in the trucking route optimization market, Routific targets last-mile delivery businesses with 25 or fewer trucks. “Our mission is to make route optimization accessible to every last-mile delivery fleet,” Kuo said.

Solving route planning is among the most important problems in the transportation industry. The dilemma is often framed in context of the so-called traveling salesman problem: What is the fastest way for a salesman to make multiple stops in multiple cities?

The problem is easily extrapolated to the trucking industry, and scientists, mathematicians and logistics companies have dedicated an enormous amount of time and money to solving that problem. Among them is UPS, which in 2013 launched the massive Project ORION (Onroad Integrated Optimization and Navigation) aiming to optimize delivery routes in regard to distance, fuel and time.

Bees: They don’t just bumble along

Routific, like many companies, has turned to the natural world for solutions. Driving its proprietary software is a popular algorithm based on the famous foraging behavior of honeybees, in which returning bees perform a waggle dance in front of other bees in the hive to indicate where a promising flower patch resides. As more bees flock to that particular spot, Kuo explained, they start branching out to other locations, ultimately optimizing a route for the entire colony.

A well-known method, the bee algorithm alone isn’t sufficient for real-world application, Kuo said, and Routific’s proprietary software is an evolution of that heuristic.

Last year alone, Routific’s software helped companies eliminate 11,000 tons of emissions,an amount that is roughly equivalent to 500,000 trees planted. The reductions, audited and verified by a third party, helped the Vancouver, British Columbia-headquartered company secure a $1.75 million clean tech grant from the Canadian government last year. The company has raised an additional $2.4 million in two separate rounds, Kuo said.

Offering up a case study, Kuo said a customer with 20 trucks in California, delivering 2,500 packages a day, was able to reduce its fleet by five trucks and saved $200,000 annually simply by optimizing the routes. 

At its core, route optimization is about identifying the fastest route from Point A to Point B. But that definition belies the amount of nuance and complexity associated with the process. Google Maps, for example, is a form of route optimization, but even Google Maps for business is limited by optimizing only for a single driver.

“Route optimization is about the entire fleet and all your orders,” Kuo said. “It doesn’t just tell you how to go, it tells you which trucks go where and if possible how you can take trucks off the road.”

Routific alerts sent via a driver app and customer notifications also help maximize efficiency, he added.

The road back to nature

Looking ahead, Kuo said his ambition is to get the 72% of companies still plotting routes by hand as close to zero as possible.

Greenhouse gas emissions are partially to blame for the collapse in honey bee populations, the company noted, with researchers from the University of Maryland reporting that about 40% of U.S. honey bee colonies died between October 2018 and April 2019 — the highest winter loss in 13 years .

“With technology available everywhere, and the environment in such a dire situation,” observed Kuo, “we need to make sure we don’t waste precious resources by driving around in circles when we simply don’t need to.”

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