Are we close to achieving a delivery utopia?

Will we ever reach a technological utopia? Most likely, the answer is no. But as Huxley’s Brave New World taught us, utopias ain’t all they’re cracked up to be.

However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t incorporate ‘utopian’ elements into our day-to-day lives, such as taking a resource-intensive task and streamlining it to near-perfection. In fact, the futuristic convenience of being able to receive deliveries anytime, thanks to the help of robots, could be just around the corner.

Autonomous vehicles will deliver 80 per cent of packages within the next decade, according to ‘Parcel delivery: The future of last mile’, an extensive report released in December 2016 by McKinsey & Company. 

The consulting firm predicts that Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), drones and bike couriers will deliver the packages of the (near) future, although bike couriers will only make up 2 per cent of packages.

So, if machines will transform the delivery market to this radical extent, what exactly, will this look like? While we might imagine receiving all our packages by drone, the reality, I believe, will be quite different.

By putting significant effort into pioneering drone delivery in recent years, Amazon has excited the world by painting a picture of this futuristic service. The retail giant hopes to render drones close enough to population centres, in order to be more efficient than road-based delivery. 

Through using the power of flight, drones may appear to be the best means of efficient delivery. We may picture a drone superhighway - a dedicated airspace for drones to autonomously deliver packages to customers.

The likelihood of this, though, will depend on the area of operation. There are the obvious safety concerns of a cluttered airspace, peppered with flying machines, controlled by amateur operators. The cost of establishing such a delivery service is, compared to ground-based delivery methods, sky-high. And this cost will inevitably be passed-on to customers.

There’s also the social aspect.

While the concept of air delivery may sound cool, with your neighbour’s daily impulse-buys being delivered by a very loud six-foot drone, the novelty would fade fast. Imagine the sound of a washing machine spinner at full-belt during unpredictable hours of the day, waking up your kids and spooking your labradoodle.

It’s easy to overlook the scope of wheels on our roads in favour of drones in our skies.

While many futurists imagine a world of Jetson-style flying cars, it’s easy to forget that we haven’t fully tapped the potential of our road networks – both public, unmarked and residential.

We all know they’re on their way, but we’re yet to live in a world of solely or partly-autonomous vehicles, carbon-neutral travel and the shared ‘borrowing’ of cars eclipsing outright ownership.

Maximising efficiency

An increasing proportion of car owners want driverless and electric cars, while half of today’s owners don’t want to own a vehicle in the future, according to a KPMG survey of car manufacturing bosses.

Driverless vehicles, and smart devices in general, will benefit from 5G mobile technology. With so many devices feeding data into the Internet of Things (IoT), devices will be able to communicate and act in unison.

Autonomous vehicles for instance, will be able to communicate with one another, and other road users.

Just as delivery vehicles will be used to maximise efficiency and safety beyond the capabilities of humans, so too will passenger vehicles. 

With giants like Google, Tesla and Uber counted among the early adopters of self-driving cars, you can bet that the overwhelming majority of future vehicles, whether transporting people or packages, will be driverless.

Of course, other inventors have looked at autonomous delivery vehicles in different ways. 

Mole Solutions is ignoring both road and air for something completely different: below-ground freight capsules. Thrown into the delivery mix, such an invention could help to reduce road (and air) traffic congestion, as well as keeping out of sight.

Pelipod on the other hand, is seeking to cater specifically to businesses that need efficient, secure and direct delivery. Bypassing post offices, courier firms and depots, the firm is pioneering delivery pods that will travel straight to the destination. Integrated electronic systems will grant access to only authorised users, and provide proof of delivery. 

And Kar-Go, the driverless delivery vehicle from my own Academy of Robotics, will autonomously navigate unmarked roads such as residential areas, and use an intelligent package management system to deliver packages to retail customers, day or night.

You don’t need to be a futurist to predict that when technology allows for human labour to be replicated in a cheaper and more efficient way, companies will adopt this new system as fast as, well, humanly possible.

Looking beyond the first incarnations of autonomous vehicles and towards the far-future of delivery, the process will eventually become digital. 

To put this into context, 25 years ago, the only way to send a document to someone was to have it physically delivered. With a little help from technology, the same document could, just a few years later, be scattered into bits of information, sent across the world and re-assembled in a matter of minutes. Faxing was born. 

Measuring up to expectations

As technology improved, the time it took to send a document moved from minutes, to seconds, to an instant. So, if delivery of physical goods continues to incrementally improve over time, it’s not unrealistic to imagine that your latest iPhone could one day not be physically sent to you at all.

Rather, it could be purchased via a digital download and, through some 3D printer/fax machine-hybrid, be re-assembled in your living room.

Of course, we can’t expect to see such an invention anytime soon. Technological advancements – despite accelerations in the digital age – are gradual. In the meantime, though, our lives could be transformed by autonomous delivery vehicles, and indeed driverless vehicles in general.

So will the future of delivery measure up to expectations? That perhaps depends on your vision. Yes, there will be drones, but they will be part of a mix of many other delivery methods, including pods and capsules.

Road vehicles will still be the primary force for delivering packages, but they will be far different from your typical UPS truck – they’ll come in all shapes and sizes and many will look like moon buggies and other sci-fi-esque incarnations.

Regardless of the aesthetics and even the delivery method though, if we can affordably receive packages day and night via a robotic delivery vehicle, it’ll be hard to complain. And if that could be considered a delivery utopia, then count me in.

William Sachiti, founder, the Academy of Robotics
Image Credit: Alphaspirit / Shutterstock