Transporting your Robot

by on January 29, 2015

highway transportation

Throughout my career I have had to ship different robots to different locations around the world. Here is a little bit about what I have learnt about transportation.

The 3 basic ways for a robot to travel are by land, by air, and by sea.

Typically by truck (I guess there are also trains, but I have never used one, and I imagine they are similar to trucks just with tracks being a constraint) is the easiest option. You can find a trucking company that will transport your robot. When you get a truck you can sometimes get a partial truck where you are given a certain amount of volume, or you can get a full truck where the entire truck is dedicated to your payload. The nice thing with a truck is you can give them a time, date, and location and the driver will bring your stuff to you. There is generally the least restrictions when transporting things by ground transportation. You will need to follow DOT restrictions (and other rules) for things such as max width and height of your load.

Transporting by air is good when you need to get something somewhere fast. This is especially the true when you need to cross oceans. The downside is that this is also an expensive way to travel. Putting a large robot with support equipment on a plane can be pricey. You are also limited in what you can put on the plane. If you have a gas/petrol powered robot the airline that is shipping your stuff might get angry and refuse. Also if you are using lithium batteries, shipping them can be near impossible. One of my enjoyable past field tests involved stuffing a C-130 with a bunch or robot stuff.

Shipping by sea is often a nice way to transport your robot across oceans (or long distances around a coast). The downside is that this can be very slow… Sending a shipping container (which is easy to pack, almost like a truck) from the North America to South America by boat can take an easy month. A big benefit is you can ship your lithium batteries across oceans this way. This option is often cheaper than by land or by air.

You can look in your local yellow pages or Google to find shipping companies near you. You will often need multiple shipping companies. For example you might have: a local truck to the port, the ship/boat company, a truck from the destination port to a large city, and then another smaller truck to your location. There are shipping agents that can help you arrange all of that. Also for smaller robots (where small is relative) don’t forget about UPS and FedEx to ship your freight.

Types of Trucks

When you are planning to ship something by truck there are different types of trucks to choose from. Within each of these types there are also different lengths of trucks that you can request. You should be aware that truck drivers will usually want to inspect the loads to make sure they are secure. With many types of trucks the truck driver will be the one that secures the load and not you. When you have a truck come to your loading area you should find out in advance how long it is to make sure it will be able to get-in and get-out of your area.

Pickup + Trailer – This is just a standard pickup truck that you can also get a trailer to tow behind it. This is the smallest and simplest type of truck here.

Tow Truck – These are the standard trucks that haul broken down cars. They are probably one of the easiest types of trucks to get, and are inexpensive to get a local tow truck and driver to help you move a robot. You will usually want to request a tow truck with a flat-bed and not one that drags a car behind it. If you get a tow truck it is usually open top so your stuff is not protected from the elements. Also the driver from the tow company will be the one operating/driving the truck.

Panel Truck or Box Truck – This is another easy to get truck. These are the large trucks you see on the highway as well as the smaller trucks you see in the cities that have a metal box in the back for transporting goods. These are also easy to rent in small and medium sizes where you can drive them your self (as opposed to getting a truck with a driver). In my experience this is the type of truck I use most. I typically rent them and then we can drive it based on our own schedule.
panel truck

Flat Bed – A flat-bed is a truck that instead of having a box in the back just has a flat platform. These are good for carrying large loads and being able to get a forklift in from all sides. The downside is that your robot is not protected from the elements and is exposed (I know you can put tarps on top of things).
flat bed

Low Boy – This is a truck where the carrying surface is low to the ground. This gives you the most clearance for carrying tall loads. These are often good for transporting tractors and other tall/large robots. These Low Boys can come apart in different ways to allow you to drive a robot onto them.
lowboy truck

Tip: When doing a roundtrip shipping a truck driver might hang around town waiting for you and try to get a few local hauls while waiting. It can often be helpful to pay the driver a little extra for them to help you in the field with non-trucking things and to give you an extra pair of hands. Many of the truckers I have met are good at solving field logistic issues and improvising to fix mechanical items. We have even asked truck drivers to help record video!


A good crate can make all of the difference when shipping items. You generally want a crate that is elevated by multiple blocks so that it can be lifted by a pallet jack (or fork lift) from any direction. Typically people will build a crate with a few slats that only allow forks to enter from one side.

You will want to think about how you seal the crate. There are various methods ranging from screws to climps (a type of clip) to latches. You need to think will you have access to tools? or will they all be in the crate that you need to open? Using clips such as climps can be an easy way to secure a crate shut. These can be purchased online or from a local shipping company.

There are professional crate makers that can do beautiful jobs building crates. They often build crates for companies that bring things to exhibits. They can really help walk you through exactly what you need and make a crate that fits your robot perfectly. They will also have different supplies such as stamped wood for international shipping, foam sheets, various ways to seal the crate, and ways to secure your load in the crates.

Once your robot is in a crate you will want to tie it down so that it does not move and is secure. I will often use wheel chocks or 2×4 lumber to help hold a robots wheels in place. And then I will get some screw in eye bolts to help tie the rest of the robot down. Heavy things like batteries can often be removed from the robot and secured to the base of the crate. This will help you avoid having a heavy battery come loose in your robot.

You will want to label the crate on all sides with things like your address, your phone number, the destination, “THIS SIDE UP” and “FRAGILE”. New crates also tend to warp so labeling which side wall (or base or lid) of the crate connects to other sides walls (such as putting a letter on each touching side) is useful and can help with reassembly. It is also useful to label which side is “FRONT”, this will let others handling the crate position it for you or if you can driver your robot on/off the crate can simplify unloading. You might also consider stapling your labels down to make sure they stay, and also spray painting your information on the crate so that it is permanent.
(Thanks Hallie for some input on this)

Batteries in the Air

If you plan on shipping batteries by air (especially lithium-ion) you need to plan in advance since the airlines have a strong desire not to have batteries exploding and catching on fire mid-flight.

If you built your own battery pack then you have little chance of getting it approved to fly. There is a method of getting prototype batteries certified to fly but it is not easy or fun. If each cell or individual battery is certified to fly you might be able to take your pack apart and then ship it. If you have batteries that are safe to fly you should attach the documentation of that to the battery pack so anyone inspecting will see it.

If you can you should consider shipping your robot with no batteries, and then purchasing the batteries locally.

International Shipping

International shipping adds some complexities to transporting your robot. You will often want to work with a shipping agent that has experience in international shipping. You will need to generate your manifest (often weeks or months) in advance so that it can be approved and to minimize problems with customs and shipping. Based on the countries involved you will have different taxes and regulations.

There is something called a carnet that allows you to declare items you are bringing into a country with the idea that you are also taking them back out of the country with you. This can simplify bringing stuff into a country and avoiding taxes. The downside is that is costs money to prepare the carnet. In one case I saw nobody at the airport knew what to do with a carnet and it took lots of people lots of time to figure it out.

ISPM-15 Logo for international wood shipping.When you build your crate you will want to get stamped wood that is certified to be pest free so that countries will allow your wood/crate into its borders. There are many places (such as Hawaii’s Dept. of Agriculture) that will insist on doing an inspection of the crate to look out for foreign infestations. There are various stamps (ISPM 15). Ranging from being allowed to be used on the exterior of the crate to only being allowed to be used inside the crate (such as for bracing). The strictest of the stamps (usually for the external wood) actually requires that the stamper submit paperwork for the wood that is stamped!

If you want to avoid packing your robot, you should build flying robots! Just dont let the FAA find out!

Main image & truck images from Wikipedia

Note: For everyone who did not figure it out my bad attempt at humor. I do not endorse tricking the FAA.

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