Those looking for parking at Dusseldorf Airport can’t quite believe their eyes: Here, a fully automated parking robot, Ray, is in charge of slotting vehicles into their assigned spaces. Space age technology or flight of fancy? We asked Ray’s inventor, Rupert Koch, to spill the details.

It is a bit like valet parking – with the slight, but fundamental difference that Ray, who recently started receiving visitors’ and vacationers’ cars at Dusseldorf airport, is no human. Ray is a robot. No android, i. e. a two-legged approximation of the human anatomy. Rather, something resembling a forklift. But maybe the world’s most intelligent forklift. After all, Ray does not simply push cars into gaps – he pushes cars in the most appropriate gap. This makes him truly unique. And behind each smart computer there is an idea. An idea dreamt up by a company from a small Bavarian village.

Mr. Koch, your parking robot Ray recently started operations at Dusseldorf Airport. What are the tangible advantages of your system?
We manage to save a lot of space.

How come?
Depending on the garage’s structure, the fully automated parking service saves the operator around 40 to 60 percent of space since we can position cars in the best possible way. Our technique could even enable construction on previously unfeasible sites that lack the space for conventional parking structures. In addition, it eliminates the obligatory search for a parking space and the associated retrieval time. At Dusseldorf Airport, for example, this saves passengers around 30 minutes on arrival and departure.

“We manage to save a lot of space.”
Rupert Koch

Sounds worthwhile. So, can we expect a general switch to fully automated parking soon?
Ray is no mainstream product. We don’t expect to be consulted every time someone plans to build an underground garage. But when and where space is at a premium and access to cars is essential, our system could play an important role.

It took you three-and-a-half years to develop Ray. Could you tell us about the project’s challenges? And what makes you especially proud?
The measuring technology proved the most complicated – and also took the most time in development. Ray’s movements around the garage are completely autonomous at a brisk three meters per second. This requires continuous monitoring of the environment to spot unexpected obstructions in time. In addition, the robot needs to recognize and measure the cars for appropriate handling – vehicles come in all shapes and sizes.

Would you prefer standardized cars?
In the early stages of development my answer would have been a resounding “yes.” Yet by now, we really could not care less. We have discovered the best possible solution for car recognition. Ray recalibrates for every car to exact specifications. We can park absolutely anything cleared for a parking garage, from a compact smart to an SUV. And each vehicle is assigned to just the right space, allowing the system to save even more room with smaller models.

So, you have already solved the space saving issue. What about another task – could you see Ray charging electric cars?
Certainly. That’s been part of the equation from day one. And we do not need to provide each space with the required charging tech – Ray simply moves the electric car to the charger and then reparks it once charging has finished. This removes the need for extra infrastructure in the parking garage.

Your company is situated in a tranquil Bavarian village near Lake Chiem. What prompted you to tackle big city problems?
Although my partners and I hail from the countryside, we studied in larger cities and also traveled the world quite a bit. So, the issue cropped up every once in a while. I think that metropolises are reaching the tipping point in terms of parking.

Since people struggle to find free spaces at all?
Yes, or they end up spending incredible sums on private parking. For many people, the only alternative is to do without a private car. Even car sharing requires parking spaces. This made us think.

So, are you being inundated with calls from city planners and airport operators?
As stated earlier, we don’t consider Ray a mainstream product, but we already have follow-on contracts that I am not at liberty to disclose. I can think of many applications ranging from public parking garages to facilities for office or housing complexes. At the same time, we have also been approached by people that hadn’t actually been on our radar.

For instance?
Think storage for impounded vehicles. Once the owner pays the appropriate fee, Ray picks out their vehicle from storage. Car hire companies or car sharing might also benefit from the system.

Where in the world do you see the most pressing or imminent use scenario for Ray?
You don’t really have to look very far: Munich is an obvious example that could use improved parking.

Cross your heart: If you could pick any place at all, where would you like to see Ray in action?
In a storage space for classic cars. Due to the system’s autonomous nature we could even work in low-oxygen environments to protect the vehicles from corrosion. And when their owners want to take them out, they would be retrieved automatically. At the same time, we could also display the cars behind glass and offer museum-like access.

So, what about your own company parking?
Our staff is expanding at a rapid rate – from the three of us four years ago to more than 15 people right now. With next year’s planned hiring drive, we are slowly, but surely approaching a point when we might run out of parking space. Yet we are still coping okay – without Ray.

Header image: Oktay Cetinkaya