University of Calgary: Researchers hope artificial intelligence will help ease weather-related supply chain issues

Skyrocketing fuel prices aren’t the only thing giving Canada’s trucking industry nightmares these days.

The country’s supply chain has experienced a number of major delays over the last couple of years, including record-breaking rain and flooding in B.C. that closed highways last year, and long-standing restrictions at the Canada-U.S. border because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Consumers have been left with empty store shelves and rising prices, while truckers have been left hunting for ways to get their products to market.

Researchers at the University of Calgary and the National Research Council Canada (NRC) are using artificial intelligence (AI) in hopes of saving time, money, fuel and lives.

Weathering the storm
Whether it’s a massive thunderstorm with rain and hail or a whiteout blizzard, road conditions in and around Calgary can turn on a dime.

With these types of severe weather situations becoming more frequent, climate change will have an increased impact on our daily lives, says Schulich School of Engineering geomatics professor Dr. Xin Wang, PhD:

Our research is dedicated to minimizing the impact of severe weather on logistic transportation by harnessing the power of AI and machine learning. It will assist the human decision-making process and generate the best possible alternative routes (for moving goods) to minimize such impacts on society.

Wang has been working with NRC researchers as well as partners at The City of Calgary and two transportation companies, Canada Cartage and Bison Transport, to optimize everything from route planning and delivery schedules to workforce planning.

“We looked at more than 22 million GPS records to identify traffic patterns and driver behaviour,” she says. “This yielded information about how trucks are moving around the city at different times, which routes they take and so on.”

Big business
According to The City’s acting manager of transportation safety, truck movement on highways around Calgary has increased by 55 per cent over the last 15 years. Madhuri Seera says the logistics industry supports about 134,000 jobs in Calgary, contributing about $14.5 billion to the local economy annually.

“The technological tools being developed will help us meet the goals of our Goods Movement Strategy — a road map to achieving a highly efficient network in the city as growth in the supply chain and logistics industry explodes,” Seera says.

The transportation industry is ripe to adopt AI as it is already network-based and is looking for ways to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and the number of empty-truck miles, while also keeping drivers out of harm’s way when they encounter poor road conditions or high-risk locations where crashes could occur.

A made-in-Canada road map
Collaboration will be key as the industry moves forward, starting with developing Canadian talent, says Margaret McKay, the NRC’s AI for Logistics Supercluster Support Program leader.

“Students and postdoctoral fellows who have participated in the program are in high demand,” McKay says. “We provide training in solving real-world problems along with opportunities to work with industry partners. This helps to attract and retain experts in Canada.”

Wang adds the work being done together is already leading to innovation, new products and support for public-policy objectives related to greenhouse gas emissions.

“The research and industrial experience we gain from this project can be used for national goods transportation and optimization of municipal transportation systems,” she says. “It will also address national issues of importance to the Canadian economy and improve the quality of life for all Canadians.”

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