Drones, driverless vehicles, robots, underground tunnels… futuristic delivery options are proliferating, but will they ever replace the ‘man with a van’?
Imagine a world, maybe 25 years from now, maybe less. Mrs Customer is sitting at her computer doing her weekly shop. Most has automatically been re-ordered by the smart fridge or waste bin, but she needs a few extra items, as well as a new bowl for the dog, a garden trowel, a birthday card, and medication for her elderly mother.
Shopping completed, Mrs Customer goes to her 3D-printer and collects a very smart new bowl for the dog, although the trowel isn’t quite finished yet. There is a buzz outside and she opens the door to see that the pharmacy drone has arrived with Mum’s tablets. An hour later the door bell rings and it is Happy Henry, the supermarket robot, with her fresh produce order. Henry has been before so he knows the location of her fridge and freezer and quickly puts her shopping away. A little later there is another buzz and she opens the delivery hatch by her driveway to see that her ambient shopping order has arrived via the underground freight way. The phone rings, it is her cousin thanking her for the extremely amusing e-card that she has just opened.
Far fetched? Perhaps, but also all quite possible. From being a high-tech novelty in the 1980s, 3D-printing is now mainstream and increasingly affordable, while the range of synthetic materials used in such systems continues to grow: tools have even been sent by e-mail to a printer on the space station. According to John Andrews, CEO of the International Omni Retailing Markets Association (IORMA), 3D-printing: “…enables not only remote design, production, and digital distribution but eliminates stock-holding, inventory costs, physical transport, and packaging. It is the ultimate solution for consumers who ‘want it now’.”
Delivery robots equipped with artificial intelligence, too, are not beyond the realms of possibility. Currently “Nao” – a 58 cm humanoid figure – can be found offering financial information to customers in Japanese banks, while its slightly larger brother (sister?) “Pepper” works as a sales assistant in branches of SoftBank Mobile’s phone shops and also advises shoppers about Nestlé’s espresso machines in a roll-out to 1,000 stores; both projects also in Japan. Rather more relevant for the delivery sector is “Atlas”, a tough guy that can carry heavy goods and “pick its way through congested spaces”, made by Boston Dynamics, a Google subsidiary. Put “Atlas” in a driverless vehicle and perhaps it (he?) could easily cope with a string of urban deliveries. Potentially more “intelligent” is iCub a humanoid robot, which is part of an EU initiative involving more than 20 laboratories worldwide. iCub not only has a range of robotic skills but is also being imbued with a “sense of self” and the ability to understand meaning, not just words. The result, suggests Tony Prescott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Sheffield and a director of Sheffield Robotics, involved in the iCub project, is a robot that could ultimately work in “search-and-rescue or helping people with learning difficulties”. Putting Mrs Customer’s shopping away would surely be a piece of cake for the iCubs of the future?
As for drones, Amazon’s interest in them has been widely publicised, but DHL has already implemented drone deliveries for medicines and urgent supplies to Juist, a sandbar island 12 km into the North Sea from the German coast with 2,000 inhabitants. Aviation restrictions may currently limit drone activities, but combine drone flying skills with a clever robot and – in urban areas at least – such a system might just replace the motor-bike courier to satisfy customer demand for immediate delivery. Alternatively, take a look at another of Boston Dynamics offerings: “Cheetah” which can run very fast.
As for those underground freight ways, Mole Solutions has just started a nine-month test project in Northampton of its freight pipeline system using capsules powered by electricity producing magnetic fields which propel them along tracks. The system is said to cost only 12-20 per cent of comparable road freight. Although currently designed for moving bulk goods, one can imagine that in future a network of underground pipes beneath major roads, running fully automated and unmanned capsules, might also be adapted for domestic urban deliveries.
Just as e-mail has replaced much letter writing with paper and postage stamps and digital technology is transforming the music and book trades, so 3D-printing has the potential to transform the delivery of a wide range of “physical” objects, while automated systems and robots could handle bulkier goods. A welcome alternative to staff shortages or a major cause for concern? Futurists such as Thomas Frey are already suggesting that by 2030, half of all occupations will have disappeared, to be replaced by digital technology and systems using artificial intelligence. Studies by the Pew Research Center* draw similar conclusions suggesting that: “Many jobs – truck drivers, customer support, light assembly, bank tellers and store checkout staff – will be diminished”. Great technology perhaps, but potentially rather worrying both for that “man with a van” and society in general.
l “AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs” available at http://www.pewinternet.org