Imperial College London: Tech inspired by ant colonies could keep goods moving during supply chain shocks

The Imperial alumnus company will use a £460,000 grant from Innovate UK to further develop bio-inspired warehousing and logistics technology in partnership with the University of Bath.

COVID-19 has had a dual effect on global supply chains, causing shocks due to shortages of staff and materials while increasing the world’s dependence on vital deliveries of food and medicine.

Businesses that rely on complex warehousing and delivery operations are under acute pressure. They could take inspiration from ants, which use a form of distributed decision-making that makes plans more adaptable.
Households are turning increasingly to internet shopping and in particular a new wave of services that offer fast delivery of groceries, food and consumer goods, often via ‘dark stores’ – shops that are closed to the public but used to fulfil delivery requests.

But these businesses and others that rely on complex warehousing and last-mile delivery operations are currently under acute pressure due to COVID-19 and Brexit, and face a variety of long-term challenges achieving the efficiency they need to be profitable.

They could improve productivity by taking inspiration from the adaptable behaviour of ant colonies, according to Imperial alumnus Dr Niccolò Corsini, the CEO and Founder of Logidot, which is offering businesses access to sensor technology and data-driven insights to optimise their operations.

Inspiration from nature
ants crawling in a line in the forest“Ants are very good at adapting quickly to changes in a dynamic environment. If they have food or predators in the vicinity, they can signal it by leaving trails of pheromones that guide other ants along the optimal route,” Dr Corsini explains.

The insects use distributed decision-making because they lack a central decision-maker, and this has the advantage of making their plans more adaptable.

“When you think about last-mile deliveries and dark stores, you have orders rapidly coming in from varying locations, and networks of delivery drivers ideally adapt in a similarly dynamic way,” he adds. “You can’t pre-plan everything because you lose opportunities for optimisation, for example the opportunity to fit in an extra delivery by deviating from a pre-planned route.”

Data-driven insights for warehousing and logistics
Logidot’s hardware
Logidot’s hardware
Dr Corsini founded Logidot in 2016 to develop technology to help warehousing and logistics operators make better decisions on order prioritisation, resource utilisation and safety. He says that most warehouses are managed manually, causing 35% of work time to be wasted on unproductive workflows and accidents such as forklift truck collisions that could have been avoided.

Logidot offers Internet of Things (IoT) technology comprising easily installed, lower-power sensors that track the movement of stock, equipment and vehicles within warehouses, and software that captures and analyses this information.

The technology enables real-time tracking of warehouse and delivery operations using a control panel, which can be used to detect and address safety issues such as speeding and temporary bottlenecks that are reducing efficiency.

Importantly, data built up over months and years can be combined with machine learning and mathematical optimisation techniques to yield insights that could transform logistics operations. This could involve, for example, giving delivery drivers the optimal degree of flexibility to adapt delivery routes on-the-fly.

Scale-up success
Dr Corsini and Logidot colleagues
Dr Corsini and Logidot colleagues
Dr Corsini was inspired to start Logidot using expertise he gained as research associate in computational physics at Imperial. “Every force of nature optimises the use of energy and information. In a warehouse you’re doing the same.”

Since its founding, the company, whose team includes three Imperial alumni, has received pre-seed and seed funding and begun to generate revenue from a European customer base.

Niccolò has been early to identify warehousing as a field that would benefit from IoT, and understands that it isn’t hardware or software alone but insights that create value.
Dr Peter Collins
Imperial mentor and CEO of Permasense
It has now bid successfully from a pool of 800 applicants for a grant from Innovate UK that it will use to partner with the University of Bath’s Centre for Smart Warehousing and Logistics Systems. The project, which is currently recruiting for a Research Associate, will further develop hardware and algorithms for optimising the operations of urban warehouses, dark stores and fulfilment centres.

The CEO of technology company Permasense, Dr Peter Collins, has provided expert mentoring to Dr Corsini. He said: “Niccolò and his team have been early to identify warehousing as a field that would benefit from IoT-based solutions, and they understand that it isn’t the hardware or software in itself but ultimately the insights they yield that create value for customers, by improving asset utilisation and optimising processes.

“To build up these insights requires years of accumulated data, and years of hard work. Niccolò has the technical understanding, the leadership ability, and the grit and determination required to make Logidot a great success in this space.”

Imperial’s entrepreneurial community
IVMS mentors Paul Dowling and Dominique Klein in conversation with student entrepreneurs in the Enterprise Lab
IVMS mentors Paul Dowling and Dominique Klein in conversation with student entrepreneurs in the Enterprise Lab
With a longstanding interest in business, Dr Corsini became President of the student society Imperial Entrepreneurs in 2009, which ran entrepreneurship competitions, speaker series, and business mentoring programmes.

Imperial went on to significantly expand its infrastructure to support student entrepreneurship and Dr Corsini joined the community at Imperial’s student entrepreneurship hub, the Enterprise Lab. Logidot was a finalist in the Enterprise Lab’s 2017 Venture Catalyst Challenge competition and continues to receive mentoring from Dr Collins via the Imperial Venture Mentoring Service (IVMS).

It’s great to see the company go full circle from Imperial’s student startup community to industrial partner to researchers at Bath
Victoria Nicholl
Entrepreneurship Development Manager, Imperial
“The Enterprise Lab is a space where likeminded people can come together and meet – there’s a lot of peer-to-peer learning. It’s a very exciting hub, it brings people together from the student body, academic body and business experts from outside the College and it plays a very important role in stimulating the entrepreneurial spirit of Imperial,” says Dr Corsini.

“IVMS has provided mentors who have done it before, so you can learn from their mistakes instead of repeating them. We were lucky to have a mentor in Peter Collins, who had the very specific expertise of building an industrial IoT business and who accelerated our learning dramatically.”

Victoria Nicholl, Imperial’s Entrepreneurship Development Manager, said: “Logidot have been on a successful journey so far, having raised investment, gained customers and begun generating revenue. Niccolò also did his part to help create the entrepreneurial community we have now at Imperial and is frankly brilliant. It’s great to see the company go full circle, growing from Imperial’s student startup community and now becoming an industrial partner to researchers at Bath.”