June 9, 2021

Safety is the key to successful autonomous operations

Maria Meijburg

Senior Functional Safety Engineer

Distribution yard operations are filled with manual, repetitive tasks performed in oftentimes hazardous, inhospitable conditions. It’s in these types of environments that autonomous technology really shines – helping keep people out of harm’s way. To realize this end, the autonomous system itself must be safe and reliable. As a senior functional safety engineer at Outrider, my primary objective and personal passion is the safety of autonomous systems.

Helping keep people out of harm’s way is when autonomous technology really shines. To realize this end, the autonomous system itself must be safe and reliable.

The Outrider System has one job in distribution yards – moving trailers between loading docks and parking spots safely and effectively. While the job itself is easy to understand, the technology required to make it happen is no small feat. The Outrider System is the result of years of development, testing, and continuous improvement. We take an electric yard truck platform and transform it into an autonomous vehicle using a combination of state-of-the-art components, such as high fidelity sensors and high-end computer hardware, that we integrate together with first-of-its-kind software. 

Because there are no existing safety standards for autonomous yard vehicles, Outrider developed its own standards in the way it designs, manufactures, and deploys its system. A key part of developing safety standards is functional safety, which covers the identification of hazards, associated risks, and mitigation of those risks. In order to develop a set of safety criteria applicable to autonomous distribution yards, we leveraged functional safety standards across multiple use cases and industries, including the automotive, industrial robot, and agriculture industries.

Safety Assessment and Design

Even though the functional safety standards that Outrider is leveraging have different industry applications, there is one common approach:  every standard requires a risk assessment and specific, defined risk mitigation measures. 

For every iteration of our system, we first set the scope for our risk assessment. Then, we compile a list of identified hazards and their associated risks, which provides the basis for high-level safety requirements. The result of the risk assessment drives our design to be more robust and reliable when it comes to avoiding or mitigating the identified hazards. 

Based on the results of the risk assessment, we work to increase the safety of the system through engineering and operational mitigations. Engineering mitigations are developed from the ground up in a manner designed to prevent the hazard from occurring in the first place. This comes in the form of system-level design changes or the addition of safety components. For operational mitigations, we partner with our customers to define rules and procedures at the deployment site to mitigate operational risks. 


After the safety assessment and design are complete, we move into an iterative testing process to accomplish and sign off on three main objectives: 

      1. Verify that our design requirements have been met using simulation tools, component performance tests, and move missions at our advanced testing facility. If the system does not meet our performance targets, we perform a careful design review and implement changes in the AV hardware, software, system behavior, or operational plans.
      2. Validate our system in production, limited scope distribution yards. Operating in real-world environments enables us to verify our design assumptions and confirm that our operating rules and procedures appropriately mitigate risks. Through comprehensive data collection, we take what we learn in production distribution yards and feed that information into our design review process.
      3. Expand our system capabilities to handle increasingly complex distribution yard operations. We use internal AV metrics and production yard analytics to create a comprehensive picture of system performance. Using this insight, we continuously evaluate and update our system allowing us to mitigate any new risks.

At Outrider, we’re working with customers to deploy autonomy responsibly. This means removing people from harm’s way so they can work in value-add jobs under better conditions. We’re excited about designing a safer and more efficient system that reduces organizational and personal risk at distribution yards.

Maria Meijburg, Senior Functional Safety Engineer

Maria leads the development of the autonomous system safety case at Outrider. Leveraging her extensive functional safety experience in the automotive industry, she is helping to ensure that autonomy addresses the challenges of distribution yards. She is passionate about creating safer work environments for people using advanced technologies.

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