It started when Mike Berry, president of Hillwood, answered a phone call.
He was speaking at the 11th Annual Tarrant Transportation Summit on Valentine’s Day, and said that three years earlier, almost to the very day, Uber called asking whether Hillwood would consider being a partner to study and establish a strategy to develop the infrastructure and the vertiport system for what they at that time were calling Uber Elevate.
Hillwood, he says, has been involved in the transportation and infrastructure development and public/private partnerships for more than 30 years in North Texas, beginning with the development of Alliance Airport, opened in 1989.
“We’ve enjoyed partnerships literally from the very beginning with BNSF Railway and with Bell,” Berry said.
So, when the Uber team showed up, Bell was with them, Bell, as you know, is leading manufacturer of aviation products and is particularly known for helicopter technology.
“When I saw them at the table I realized … this is really real, because you have legitimate global manufacturers involved,” Berry said.
The result is the AllianceTexas Mobility Innovation Zone.
Consider the assets – 27,000 acres, 162 miles of roadways essentially within the boundaries of the development, both highways and major arterials, a major intermodal facility doing 1.2 million lifts a year, controlled airspace with the FAA, 510 companies, 75 of whom are leaders in their respective global industries, literally thousands of container movements happening within this project every day and thousands of rooftops.
“We started looking at it and we said, ‘Is there a better test bed anywhere in the world where companies that are developing new technologies for mobility, some of whom are already here, could not come and develop and test and partner with others to enhance the speed of commercialization with all these different technologies?’ ” Berry said.
And the answer is, probably not.
Berry moderated a panel with BNSF Railway Vice President Brant Ring and Matthew Holvey, the Innovation Manager for Intelligent Systems at Bell.
The issue is not whether technology will change the faces of transportation – it already has and continues to do so at an accelerated rate. The issue is something else.
“This whole evolution that’s happening is happening at a really fast pace but it’s all very siloed. Companies were working on their new products and new designs, and their innovation teams were huddled up in their skunkworks. But other than maybe a select few technology partners that they would let in the tent, no one else really knew what they were doing,” Berry said.
Hillwood has built a business team around the idea and partnered with Deloitte to “stand up a mobility innovation zone unlike any that’s ever been seen in the world to help partners like BNSF and Bell and many, many others develop and test their technologies, and also work together so that we can, fast track” the results, Berry said.
Holvey doesn’t believe there is any such thing as a single mode of transportation. Before something gets on a train or a plane it was delivered by some other form of ground transportation.
The idea to bring together people managing ground transportation, either trucks or rail, air transportation and other forms of transportation with people who want to own and manage property is important, he said.
“Vertiports and air traffic management systems coming together and, for lack of a better term, a playground where you can experiment and decide on best practices, talk about open standards, I think that is huge,” Holvey said. “And I think that’s the only way we’re going to be successful.”
Ring described a series of efforts BNSF has tried and is trying at a number of its facilities to automate check in and movement of cargo, including advancements in the labor-intensive process of loading shipping containers onto and off of rail cars.
But BNSF can’t try everything at each terminal.
“We believe that these technologies that we’re deploying inside the terminal can be deployed outside the terminal. We believe a lot of these technologies our customers could benefit from, because they have similar processes,” Ring said.
They have checkpoint control, inventory counting processes and processes to spot trailers and containers to and from the docks.
“We think these technologies can be deployed at our customers’ facilities and we can connect those systems, devices and information flows and then, once our warehouses and distribution centers are connected to our facility, we believe that we can move those shipments back and forth in an autonomous fashion,” he said.
Pushed far enough back in the process, goods move through the system seamlessly and – at some future point – perhaps autonomously from point of origin to end user.
Berry said there are thousands of containers flowing through the intermodal facility in 20- and 40-foot containers.
“But imagine a container that’s designed to be broken down when it arrives here into smaller pods,” Berry said.
A BNSF autonomous crane lifts that container off and the pods are ready to be picked up.
“Bell flies in with their drone, picks up that pod and takes it over to an Amazon Fulfillment Center, which is also at Alliance. It gets broken down further, sorted through their system and out comes a smaller package that is going to be delivered to your home, which is three miles up the road,” Berry said.
The drone comes back, picks that smaller package up and takes it to a neighborhood central delivery center where it goes into a lock box and on your way home from work you go by and pick up that package up.
“That’s the real world application of these technologies that we’re trying to use the Alliance platform to create,” Berry said.
“If we can do those things – multiple use cases, thousands and thousands of times over so that the FAA can see how it works and the community can see how it works and the other regulators see how it works and the industry partners can perfect it – then it becomes economic, then it becomes commercial, and then we can take it out and grow it at scale,” he said.
But why North Texas and not somewhere else?
“The Alliance intermodal facility is our fastest growing facility for obvious reasons. But I think it’s really about the specialized infrastructure that we have in place with the highway system, the interval connectors that we have, the concepts that we’ve launched years ago, the logistics parks that we have with the intermodal facility anchoring the industrial park side surrounded by warehousing and distribution,” Ring said.
“I think it’s access to a regulatory environment that is open to have these kinds of conversation, to deploying these kinds of technologies. And I think it’s access to top tier universities to help with research and development. I think all that goes into the power of the region,” he said.
Holvey referred to the area as a kind of melting pot of all the things that need to come together to develop a seamless and highly efficient system to move goods.
“You got to have regulatory leaders that are leaning in, you need municipal leaders that are leaning in,” he said.
Other area that are dense and urban and need help don’t have the room to grow and test the concepts.
But AllianceTexas does.
“I think we have this great mix of urban, urban-like, rural, and I think we have the opportunity to grow our mobility footprint and show benefits in all those areas,” Holvey said.