Everyone paid attention, at least for a few moments, when Amazon announced its ‘Amazon Prime Air’ program that was, supposedly, to deliver goods directly from the warehousing and distribution centre to the customer’s doorstep. Most of us said “Surely not. The technology isn’t ready, and it would be illegal.” Most of us were right. In the end it is both illegal and impractical to deliver parcels by unmanned aerial vehicle without a human attendant. It was all a publicity stunt, and it worked brilliantly.
But it does get one to thinking. Many modern warehouses and distribution centres have robots of various descriptions working in them. Some are fully mobile and could be considered ‘drones’ in a broad sense. What advances in robotics and other technologies are already here, or nearly here in a realistic, this-might-not-be-a-horrible-idea way?
Drones that are already working warehousing and distribution
Fully automated (not remote control) forklifts and pallet truck systems are already available for sale, though they are still a bit expensive. They do the work a human with a similar piece of equipment would do, and they do it meticulously, unceasingly, and without the least bit of finesse or creativity. They also don’t have a union yet.
Other mobile robots pick orders and bring them to humans to be packed. They follow pre-programmed, maximum-efficiency pick routes better than human workers, make fewer errors (if everything is labelled properly – they aren’t particularly perceptive), and are generally considered less likely to run over a co-worker than most humans.
As these types of robots (drones is too ominous a term) become more widely used, their price will continue to drop, and they will soon be less expensive than human pickers and pallet lifter operators for most operations. There might be a lot of people out of work soon.
Drones that are nearly ready for work
The Dutch equipment manufacturer Quimarox tells us that they have conducted an extensive study in using drones for palletising in warehouses. They tell us that it should soon be possible, and even profitable to use actual flying drones as part of a compact, flexible and efficient automated palletising system. Since the drones are mobile, unattached units, the system can be reconfigured to suit new stock or new processes with just a software update. They should be ideal for warehouses that have to palletise many different types of loads, and have previously only considered fully human-driven systems for flexibility.
And amazon’s delivery kamikazes? Nowhere to be seen. While a robot can be given senses enough to avoid running down trained personnel at low speeds, the technology doesn’t yet exist to let one fly around in public without hurting people. It’s not that it wouldn’t work because it is illegal, it is illegal because it just wouldn’t work.