Robots Aren't Going to Replace Your Mailman

Anyone who's ever had a misdelivered package knows that the business of logistics is tricky. Boxes can get lost or damaged midway through the delivery process, and sometimes a two-day delivery turns into a couple of weeks. Why not improve the supply chain with robots?

Much has been made, in recent weeks, of delivery drones. From pizzas to packages, various companies have decided that aerial delivery is the wave of the future. In the meantime, industry experts have become worried that robots will displace human workers. Fortunately, a good look at the industry shows that automating logistics actually leads to more human workers, not less.

To See The Real Future of Logistics, Look Past Drones

Consumer and commercial drones are viewed by many as an idea which has come a bit too soon. They're an idea which gained massive popularity before a regulatory framework existed to contain them. Drones wielded by untrained operators have caused a variety of nuisances, so the regulatory backlash has been high. Therefore, any solution for commercial drone flight must pass a large variety of benchmarks.

For example, Amazon.com was recently able to complete its first drone delivery to a customer in England. The UK has a slightly more favorable regulatory environment for drones than in the US. A US based drone delivery network would face more challenges—commercial drones aren't allowed to fly outside of their operator's line of sight, they face restrictions on whether they can fly over populated areas, and deliveries can only be attempted  on an experimental basis.

In effect, the future of robot deliveries is very much going to have humans in the loop. In this industry, robots will assist human operators, making their jobs faster and easier. Let's look at a few ways this is already happening.

Robots in Logistics: Now and Future

Drones aren't the only robots that Amazon's been taking a look at. In 2012, the ecommerce giant acquired Boston-based Kiva Systems—and as of 2016, 45,000 Kiva robots are now working in Amazon warehouses. These robots are essentially an automated lifting platform—they crawl up under a large shelving unit, lift it up, and trundle it over to another part of the warehouse. This allows Amazon to quickly reconfigure its warehouses and accommodate new shipments of merchandise.

Importantly, the Kiva robots don't replace human workers—quite the opposite. The more robots Amazon buys, the more workers it can employ. The Kivas allow Amazon to store up to 50% more merchandise in a given warehouse—commensurately, Amazon needs more workers to ship and handle these items. As a result, Amazon hired 20% more workers deal with the 2016 holiday shopping season.

Robot Trucks—With Human Drivers?

Cargo trucks are a familiar sight on American highways. They also seem like the perfect candidate for automation—they drive in long, straight lines, they typically use a lot of gas, so automation would be relatively easy and produce immediate benefits in terms of fuel efficiency and cost savings. This is all true, but for the foreseeable future, autonomous trucks are going to have human drivers.

The head of the American Trucking Associations, Chris Spear, has put it like this, “If you equate it to pilots – you still have pilots in the cockpit. They do the taxiing, they do the takeoff, they do the landing.” In other words, the long hauls over flat highways might be easy for a computer to navigate, but cities, towns, and shipping areas will still require a human driver.

This analogy has already been borne out in real life. The first autonomous truck recently shipped 50,000 beers through the state of Colorado, but its journey was still monitored by a human driver in the cab. Similar to Tesla's Autopilot mode, the software of autonomous trucks allows them only to run on highways—an extremely simplified driving environment.

Gimmicks like drone delivery might one day become the true face of autonomous logistics, but there's always still going to be a man behind the curtain. As industries transition towards more practical robotics, it's important to note these transitions aren't going to replace human workers. In this instance, the side benefits of autonomy will actually equate to more employment and job security for a great many people

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