Emerging technologies in the field of logistics

Andreas Alexa



This article focuses on the description of emerging technologies in the field of logistics and the implications to the support und the sustainment of military operations in the year 2040.

Although the future is not predictable and it is a view into the glass ball, there will be significant changes in the next 20 years. Some of the new technologies, which are currently only thought by science-fiction authors and forward thinking enterprises, will not be carried out, others however will be implemented in the civil world and therefore will have an impact in the conducting of military operations.

Starting with the examination of the possible nature of a conflict in the year 2040, the study will focus on technologies in the field of logistics, which will determine how a military operation will be supported and sustained. Conclusions for research and development, capability planning and legal or moral aspects will end the article.


Nature of Conflict

Although the 20th and early 21st centuries are seen as being the most violent and bloody in human history, evidence suggests that the frequency and intensity of wars, as well as the number of violent deaths, has been declining sharply and is likely to continue to fall. Countries are also much more willing to get involved in peacekeeping, with peace-support operations. Of course, the risk of a major conflict will almost certainly remain. Historically, the rise of two or more great powers in close physical proximity is usually correlated with war or conflict – and there are a number of such potential flashpoints around the world, looking out to 2040.1)

The era out to 2040 will be a time of transition. This is likely to be characterised by instability, both in the relations between states, and in the relations between groups within states. During this timeframe the world is likely to face the reality of a changing climate, rapid population growth, resource scarcity, resurgence in ideology2) and shifts in global power from the United States and Europe towards Asia, especially China or India.3) These circumstances could result in a period of instability in international relations, accompanied by the possibility of intense competition between major powers.

No state, group or individual will meet these challenges in isolation, only collective responses will be sufficient. Hence, the struggle to establish an effective system of global governance, capable of responding to these challenges, will be a central theme of the era. There will be a constant tension between greater interdependence between states, groups and individuals and intensifying competition between them. Dependence on complex global systems, such as global supply chains for resources, is likely to increase the risk of systemic failures.4)

Diverse enemies in the year 2040 will employ hybrid strategies, which include conventional and unconventional methods, to threaten the security and vital interests of a nation. Threats may emanate from nation states or non-state actors such as transnational terrorists, insurgents and criminal organizations. So the vast majority of military campaigns in which the West will engage will be fought against irregulars, both those operate across national borders and those who do so inside them.5)

Enemies will in addition continue to apply advanced as well as simple and dual-use technologies. As new military technologies are more easily transferred, state and non-state actors apply technology to disrupt own advantages in communications, long-range precision fires, and surveillance. Enemies and adversaries will operate beyond physical battlegrounds and enemies will subvert efforts through infiltration of own forces while using propaganda and disinformation to effect public perception.

Future armed conflicts will therefore be complex, in part, because threats, enemies, and adversaries are becoming increasingly capable and elusive. The complexity of future armed conflicts is due to increasing momentum of human interaction, threats emanating from dense and weakly governed urban areas6), the availability of lethal weapon systems, and the proliferation of CBRNE threats.7)

The nature of conflict will also continue to change, particularly as a result of technology. For example could the increasing use of unmanned systems may mean that, in the future, physical conflict could occur between unmanned systems. When violence does occur, technology is likely to make applying it more precise, and possibly, more effective. Nevertheless, war is ultimately a human endeavour. It will be humans who choose to go to war, it will be humans who can stop wars and it will be humans who suffer the consequences of war.


Emerging Technologies

Emerging technologies are technologies that are perceived as capable of changing the status quo. These technologies are generally new but include older technologies that are still controversial and relatively undeveloped in potential. They are characterized by radical novelty, relatively fast growth, coherence, prominent impact, and uncertainty and ambiguity. In other words, an emerging technology can be defined as a radically novel and relatively fast growing technology characterized by a certain degree of coherence persisting over time and with the potential to exert a considerable impact on the socio-economic domain(s) which is observed in terms of the composition of actors, institutions and patterns of interactions among those, along with the associated knowledge production processes.8) Its most prominent impact, however, lies in the future and so in the emergence phase is still somewhat uncertain and ambiguous.

These technical innovations represent progressive developments within a field for competitive advantage; converging technologies represent previously distinct fields which are in some way moving towards stronger inter-connection and similar goals. However, the opinion on the degree of the impact, status and economic viability of several emerging and converging technologies vary.

In the following chapter some emerging technologies in the field of logistics will be described, which will have an impact in future military operations:

  • Autonomous Systems and Robotics,
  • Bionic Enhancement,
  • 3D-Printing and
  • Digital Identifiers.


Autonomous Systems und Robotics

Autonomous systems generally operate with various degrees of autonomy: either under remote control by a human operator or autonomously by on-board computers. An autonomous system consists of a set of sensors to observe the environment9), and will either autonomously make decisions about its behaviour or pass the information to a human operator at a different location who will control the vehicle through teleoperation.10)

Autonomous systems can be used for many applications where it may be inconvenient, dangerous or impossible to have a human operator present.


Unmanned Ground Vehicles

In the field of logistics UGV have gradually been adopted in carefully controlled environments such as warehouses and yards over the last few years. The next evolutionary step will be to deploy UGV or in this sense better called self-driving vehicles in shared and public spaces such as on highways and city streets to further optimize logistics operations and increase safety. Although there are currently strict laws governing the use of these vehicles in public spaces, tests have been performed successfully and begun to persuade regulatory bodies to accelerate the acceptance of fully driverless vehicles.

In Austria the Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology opened a part of the motorway A9 in Styria for self-driving vehicles. These vehicles are able to drive, brake and accelerate autonomously.11)

Warehouses of the future will deploy the next generation of UGV, such as autonomous forklifts, pallet movers, and swarm conveyor belt systems.12) These vehicles have integrated sensors that enable navigational authority without the need for further infrastructure such as magnetic or inductive strips. This flexibility allows for various deployment scenarios and enables new use cases for machine-human collaboration.13)

Outdoor logistics operations can utilize self-driving technologies to automate container handling at ports and the collection and loading of airfreight containers at airports. This can be achieved through self-driving carts and dollies that intelligently collect, manoeuvre, and reposition the containers as desired.

Line-haul transportation often involves long journeys overnight and also during rough weather conditions. Logistics providers can utilize various driverless technologies to support each driver’s health and safety. One concept is the autonomous highway which requires manual operation only when the truck enters or leaves the highway.

The grouping of vehicles into platoons is a method of increasing the capacity of roads. Platoons decrease the distances between cars or trucks using electronic, and possibly mechanical, coupling. This capability would allow many cars or trucks to accelerate or brake simultaneously. This system also allows for a closer headway between vehicles by eliminating reacting distance needed for human reaction. Platoon capability might require buying new vehicles, or it may be something that can be retrofitted. Drivers would probably need a special license endorsement on account of the new skills required and the added responsibility when driving in the lead.14)

Autonomous last-mile solutions such as self-driving trolleys that autonomously follow a delivery person can be used to support workers as they cope with growing parcel volumes. Self-driving parcel vehicles that use sidewalks to deliver individual orders could also enable rapid delivery services.15)


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. Although hobby drones have become popular with consumers, the adoption of UAVs in the real world is still in its early stages. This is largely due to technological limitations (e.g., poor stability in rough weather), regulations (e.g., approval is required on a case-by-case basis), and public concerns about the use of UAVs in densely populated areas. However, first commercial tests have successfully demonstrated UAV potential (e.g., Amazon Flies Package to Customer in England16)) and key regulatory bodies are expected to ease legislations for commercial UAV deliveries over the next few years.

Surveillance of infrastructure can be supported by UAVs. Equipped with cameras, they can monitor sites and assets to prevent theft and report suspected damage or maintenance requirements.17) They can also be used to coordinate major logistics operations on the ground.

Intralogistics operations can be streamlined by using UAVs for intra-plant transport (e.g., carrying parts to the required production facility) and for urgent supplier to plant spare parts delivery. UAVs equipped with computer vision technology can be deployed inside warehouses to conduct inventory checks.

Rural delivery using UAVs is attractive for remote regions that have limited infrastructure or are hazardous to access (e.g., islands during rough weather conditions, villages located in mountain ranges).18) Therefore emergency delivery services (e.g., medicines) for these communities could be set up.

Urban UAV networks for first- and last-mile delivery will be required to handle single shipments that cannot be achieved in an economical way with traditional delivery vehicles. By potentially reducing the amount of vehicle movements, UAVs can provide traffic congestion relief to densely populated cities. Each UAV can be prepared for flight along with its shipment at a logistics hub or even directly at the retail store, and is likely to use fixed programmed routes to safely deliver goods at designated drop-off points.19)


Robotics and Automatization

Robotics is the branch of technology that deals with the design, construction, operation and application of robots and related computer and control systems. Robots help with or take the place of humans in dangerous environments or manufacturing processes, and/or resemble humans in appearance, behaviour or cognition. Increasingly, robots are designed to act in roles complementary to humans.20) Today, experimental robots can inventory stock, move loads, pick berries, do housework, perform elder care, sense remotely and create a virtual presence. As their artificial intelligence improves, they will get smarter and more capable. Robot hardware is improving quickly; the challenge is the software – the intelligence behind the machine that allows it to function in a specific manner. Task-specific robots could do tasks as diverse as surgery, cooking and driving. Businesses will continue to be early adopters of robot technology, with home use following as prices decline and features become more competitive.

Developers are extending the capabilities of robots, crossing the boundary between industrial robots and non-industrial robots. Although much development is still required to improve robots’ cognitive abilities, many of the building blocks for futuristic and highly disruptive systems could be in place by 2040. Such robotics could eliminate the need for human labour entirely in some manufacturing environments, with total automation becoming more cost effective than outsourcing manufacturing to developing economies.21) Some studies suggest that significant shares of jobs in many industries in Europe may be at risk of being replaced by labour-saving technology. The numbers range from 47% to 62%. In the USA the corresponding number is 47%. Within certain industries, the numbers are even higher. For example, in accommodation and food services, the probability of jobs (as currently defined) of being replaced by labour-saving technology is as high as 87%.22)

The rise of e-commerce is replacing traditional push-driven distribution with consumer-driven pull for goods directly from the warehouse, requiring logistics providers to operate faster and more efficiently to rapidly process small individual orders. This new dynamic can be supported by robotics and automation technologies which have, in recent years, become faster, more accurate, flexible, and affordable due to swift progress in grip and sensor technologies. With an improved price/performance ratio, the adoption of robotic solutions is likely to intensify over the next years.

Flexible automation in warehousing and fulfilment will utilize perceptual and mobile piece picking robots which can intelligently sense the environment around them for navigation and safety. Collaborative robots equipped with high-resolution cameras, pressure sensors, and self-learning capabilities can be easily programmed to assist workers with tasks such as picking, packing, and sorting. They could also be moved from warehouse to warehouse to cover changing peak seasons and be used to conduct replenishment and cleaning activities overnight. The up- and down-scalable nature of these solutions will help logistics providers fulfil e-commerce orders more efficiently while also allowing a flexible automation approach.

Trailer and container unloading robots will assist workers with physically strenuous tasks. Low-cost image recognition technologies and progress in computing power have already enabled the first solutions that use robotic arms equipped with powerful sensors and grippers to locate single parcels, analyse their size and shape, and determine the optimal unloading sequence.23)

Assistance robots for local delivery will be useful to meet the growing demand for convenience logistics. They could follow delivery personnel to transport heavy items, presort parcels inside delivery vehicles, and autonomously deliver letters and parcels to dedicated collection points.24)


Bionic Enhancement

Breakthroughs in sensors and nanotechnologies have enabled previously unimaginable bionic solutions. Forward-thinking companies are exploring ways to adopt wearables such as health trackers and exoskeletons in the enterprise.25) Initial logistics use cases will focus on improving health and safety, particularly in reducing the stress and strain caused by repetitive movements in manual handling activities. This is a key issue in the transportation and warehousing sector which had the highest rate of occupational injuries and illnesses.

Smart wearables and ergonomically designed bionics could be the solution in eliminating work-related injuries. In the form of sensor trackers, digital heads-up displays, gesture controls, and smart fabrics they can support working routines and increase health and safety in all parts of the supply chain. In particular, smart glasses or contact lenses that digitalize task information into the user’s field of view (part of the augmented reality trend) and devices that integrate new forms of gesture control (such as control via muscle movements) are paving the way for the future of hands-free operations in logistics. Innovations in smart clothing concepts such as connected helmets and vests can be used to locate employees in large logistics operations and be used for a wide variety of safety applications (e.g., alerts on increasing temperatures or nearby moving vehicles).

Exoskeletons can be understood as robotic suits that boost the wearers’ strength and endurance, greatly reducing the physical stress and strain of manual handling activities. Increasingly applicable and demanded in logistics, exoskeletons reduce worker dependency on bulky tools (such as vacuum technologies) to lift heavy objects and enable people to repeat manual handling tasks for longer, with less physical strain. This increases productivity and safety in logistics.26)



3D-Printing, also known as additive manufacturing refers to processes used to create a three-dimensional object in which layers of material are formed under computer control to create an object. Objects can be of almost any shape or geometry and are produced using digital model data from a 3D-model or another electronic data source. Thus, unlike material removed from a stock in the conventional machining process, 3D-printing builds a three-dimensional object from computer-aided design model by successively adding material layer by layer.27)

3D-Printing has already become a trusted technology in the healthcare sector for printing customized prosthetics and medical devices28), as well as in the aviation sector for the production of aircraft components. Although conventional manufacturing technologies will not be replaced by 3D-printing, in segments where it is applied (such as spare parts production) it will significantly impact some logistics services as well as volumes.

Regional logistics networks will become more complex due to a growing number of manufacturing strategies and a shift from global/intercontinental to more regional/local supply chains and distribution. The varying degree to which industries will apply 3D-Printing (from completely replacing traditional fabrication, to using it for selected parts) will make it necessary to carefully evaluate the impact on a company’s supply chain strategy, planning, and execution.

3D-Printing services can enable new logistics services especially in aftermarket supply chains (the warehousing and distribution of spare parts). Instead of managing multiple warehouses stacked with spare parts that are often rarely ordered, logistics providers can set up a global 3D-Printing infrastructure coupled with a software database of digital models. Spare parts can then be printed only on-demand at the nearest 3D-Printing facility (e.g., a hub or airport) and be delivered to the right location. This would reduce lead times and cut inventory costs. Hyper-personalization can be accelerated by logistics providers offering postponement services by operating local distribution centres equipped with 3D-Printers.

The final configuration of goods can be achieved by on-demand 3D-Printing, enabling shorter lead times for highly individualized products (e.g., a personalized design or addition of a name onto the product).29)

Additive manufacturing is currently limited to structural components that have no electronic, optical, or other functional capabilities. But by 2040, manufacturers may be able to combine some electrical components (such as electrical circuits, antennae, batteries, and memory) with structural components in one build, but integration with printed electronics manufacturing equipment will be necessary.30)


Digital Identifiers

Over recent years, new technologies like invisible barcodes, near field communication, and quick response codes have enabled smart printing or tagging, and biometric devices are being adopted across various industries for more precise identification of objects and even people.31) By putting an identity to every batch, shipment, and asset, it is possible to pinpoint the location of specific items, deliver additional security information, and install a new generation of track and trace capabilities in global supply chains.

Digital product identifiers will enable all products to be identifiable, traceable, and locatable from the point of production to the point of sale. These smart labels contain information that can be digitally captured and retrieved (e.g., a bottle of water is not just assigned to a specific batch; the smart label can contain additional details such as date, time and place of bottling, and expiration date). Thus supermarkets and wholesalers, for example, can automatically generate requests for delivery for goods close to their end-of-sale date.

Integrity management of goods will lower fraud risks and support for example health management by tracing viruses back to their origin to detect and identify root causes easily and faster than today. Another health application is for pharmaceutical companies to combat product piracy. The risks for patients (as well as for the producer’s reputation) are huge, and therefore companies are likely to invest in new methods of ensuring brand integrity (such as serialization based on digital identifiers) as a part of their track and trace solutions.

Automated access management by identification and authentication of workers in controlled logistics environments such as warehouses and airport hubs can be ensured through new breakthroughs in biometric technologies (e.g., vein, fingerprint and iris scanning). This greatly augments the effectiveness of access management and helps to increase security and cost efficiency.32)


Military Implications

After the description of the above mentioned emerging technologies the implications for the military will be discussed in this chapter.


Autonomous Systems and Robotics

Complex terrain, such as urban areas, and enemy countermeasures limit soldiers’ abilities to see and fight at the tactical level. Air and ground autonomous systems allow for persistent surveillance and reconnaissance over wide areas, often going where manned systems cannot, thereby increasing standoff distances, survivability and reaction time for commanders. This will significantly increase the situational awareness of the deployed soldiers.

To avoid information overload of the leaders and the ability to make decisions. Robotics and autonomous systems facilitate mission command by collecting, organizing, and prioritizing data to facilitate decision-making as well as improving tactical mobility while reducing cyber, electronic, and physical signatures.

The resupply and distribution of logistics resources, such as food, water, ammunition, is resource intensive. Soldiers and teams become vulnerable at the end of extended supply lines. Air and ground unmanned systems and autonomy-based capabilities enhance logistics at every stage of supply movement to the most forward tactical resupply points. Autonomous systems move materiel to the most urgent points of need and provide options for army logistics distribution to the warfighter. Autonomous systems, which are following the unit, will lighten equipment loads of the soldiers and therefore increase soldier speed, mobility, stamina and effectiveness.33)

The congested and contested future operational environment increases soldiers’ exposure to hazardous situations. Robotics and autonomous systems technologies will enhance soldiers’ survivability by providing greater standoff distance from enemy formations and rockets, artillery, and mortars as well as placing fewer soldiers at risk during convoy operations. Therefore military will increase its use of robots to reduce human exposure in high-risk situations and environments as well as the number of troops necessary for certain operations. The ability to deploy such robots rapidly, for particular tasks, could help military planners address the wider resource demands present in a more fragmented, multipolar world. Health-care robots will become more autonomous and be able to interact with humans. However, they will be able to perform only specialized functions.34)


Bionic Enhancement

By using smart glasses the soldier will see virtual icons (such as navigation waypoints, friendly/blue forces, and aircraft) overlaid on their real-world view. So the soldiers are able to perform their mission with high awareness of their surroundings, with enhanced safety, speed, and in close coordination with team members.

In future soldiers could be equipped and supported with an advanced robotic exoskeleton, which will enable them to carry massive loads with minimal effort, either on their front or their back. The skeleton is ultralight, highly mobile and attached to the outside of the body with its own titanium legs, which transfer the weight of any load to the ground. It will, therefore, ease the challenges and reduce the costs and manpower requirements.35) Microcomputers sense the soldier’s body movements and enable it to do exactly what he does, whether it is running, lifting or even crawling.



By 2040 3D-Printing will be a technology with both strategic and tactical implications. This technology has then the potential to make military equipment faster and with less cost than other processes. New capabilities can be gained to make rapid repairs, print tools and parts where and when they are needed, carry fewer spares and, ultimately, transform the maintenance and logistics supply chain. 3D-Printing will give military commanders and warfighters agility in engineering specific rapid solutions to their problems in the field. As the environment or battle evolves so can their equipment.

3D-Printing will be used extensively in making military prototypes. Many of these prototypes will be put directly into service and therefore accelerate the procurement process and make it more efficient. Increasingly small run or niche military products can quickly being developed using 3D-Printing.

Fabrication laboratories, which are deployed in operations abroad, have 3D-Printers, laser cutters, milling machines and other equipment. Therefore it is possible to quickly assist troops with 3D-Printing items that they need instead of sending the project to a developer who is both off-site and potentially unfamiliar with the specific needs of the soldier.36) After identification of a problem in the field, a solution can be prototyped and then the created part will be put into service within a week. This is light speed compared with the many months that it would have normally taken to produce a solution for a problem. Additionally, based on soldier feedback this solution could be reengineered or improved further still. In addition to being more effective and developing equipment that has not been made yet fabrication laboratories can also bring efficiency. A military brings in lots of equipment to an operation and this is encased in lots of packaging. If this packaging can be recycled into 3D-Printing materials then new things can be made in an efficient manner.37)


Digital Identifiers

For the sustainment of troops in a military operation the visibility and transparency of goods is necessary. Not to know what kind of stocks are in the warehouses or currently used in the field could decrease the ability to support the warfighter. The using of Digital Identifiers will therefore enhance the supply and the sustainment of the troops. A precondition for this technology will be a nearly full digitalized army. Not only to know where the goods are, is it also necessary to know the physical condition.

Digital Identifiers are associated with stores items as they leave warehouses for the theatre, regardless of the mode of transport used. This is generally done at the pallet level, but multi-packs and critical items such as aircraft spare parts may be individually tagged. Fixed Readers arranged in portal configurations read the data’s of the digital identifiers as freight enters or leaves warehouses and distribution modes along the supply chain. Mobile readers are used at air or sea terminals and certain other nodes in the chain. This technology improves the visibility of items in the supply chain and leads to a more accurate picture of the situation because a real time access to inventory levels and locations is provided. Consequently the follow-on supply can be managed more accurately by the logisticians and the commander in the field will have more trust in the supply chain, which can save lives.38) Such efficiency speed the fulfilment of back orders and gets materials to users in the field, up to the tactical edge.

But also personnel will be tracked by digital identifiers. Knowing the location and the condition of each soldier is crucial to personnel security, health-medical issues and consequently to the fulfilment of the tasks.39)



For the sustainment of troops in a military operation emerging technologies are useful and necessary. In order to implement them in the military logistics system coordinated research and development programmes have to be started or extended. A close cooperation between military technological experts and civil companies will not only help the development of dual-use technologies but will also develop specific military technologies. Therefore the investments have to be increased in order not to lose advantages.

To meet the requirements of a capable army in the year 2040 the planning processes have to be harmonized between nations and international or multinational organizations. Due to the decreasing financial and human resources pooling and sharing within organizations and the use of civil knowledge and capacities have to be increased. The upcoming new developed technologies have to be considered in a capability based planning process in order to ensure the implementation in the military system.

In the shown emerging technologies legal and ethical aspects have to be considered as well. In some cases international and national law has to be adjusted to the new circumstances. The military must point out the legal challenges and a solution has to be found and consequently new legal regulations have to be set. Referring to the automatization and robotics there could be also a change in moral and ethical aspects. If the developing of artificial intelligence is going on it has to be ensured that the human being is deciding whether to go to war or not.

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