The delivery drivers of the future may not be the ones physically delivering packages to your door. Instead, they may be sitting in a control room several miles or even time zones away, overseeing a fleet of delivery robots or drones.
Companies are investing billions of dollars into autonomous technologies in the hope that they will improve efficiency and solve worker shortages. However, executives in these industries say that true autonomy is many years away – and may never come. As a result, they are striving to dramatically increase the number of machines each human oversees. For instance, food-deliverer Serve Robotics Inc. now has one supervisor in a control room for every four robots on the street. Ali Kashani, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, says that eventually “you are going to see a ratio of one person for hundreds, maybe more, robots, given enough time.”
In order to achieve this, we need to help machines better deal with the various obstacles they face when trying to operate in a human world. Delivery robots, for example, have to navigate complex sidewalks, where obstructions like rideshare scooters and trash can shift from hour to hour. Self-driving cars and trucks, meanwhile, are helped by infrastructure like road markings and traffic signals – but they can be thrown off by unusual situations, like having to cross a double yellow line because of road work. That’s when humans need to step in and tell the machine what to do, or take over with remote control.
Forklifts are at the cutting edge of remote-control advances, as technology increasingly allows drivers to operate them from hundreds of miles away. Software developer Phantom Auto Inc. recently raised $42 million in a funding round led by trucking company ArcBest Corp. and logistics provider NFI Industries Inc. The two companies, which plan to deploy thousands of remote-controlled forklifts at their warehouses, hope the technology will allow them to draw on a wider pool of skilled drivers instead of being limited to workers within commuting distance of warehouses.
"There are limitations to autonomy," says Elliot Katz, a co-founder of Phantom Auto. "For example, in a highly dynamic environment like a warehouse where you have humans and vehicles moving around at a fast pace, it can be difficult for autonomous systems to keep up."
Today, Phantom Auto's remote operators take control of a forklift truck for all of its operations. But soon, semi-autonomous forklift trucks will be able to handle mundane tasks like moving from one end of a warehouse to another on their own, Mr. Katz says. "By 2030, you're going to have human operators doing the complex work, such as loading or unloading a trailer, placing pallets in variable racking heights. But for the less-complex elements, you're going to have technology taking over," he says. "So it's going to be humans working hand-in-hand with autonomy, and that is how unmanned vehicles are really going to actually deploy."
Some long-distance trucking technology companies say that remote control of trucks on public roads is not safe because it relies on wireless signals that could be interrupted. Instead, they are pinning their hopes on autonomous technology to drive the truck, paired with human supervisors who step in remotely to provide direction when the truck needs to make an unexpected decision, such as whether it should cross onto a shoulder to go around a broken-down car.
"Experienced drivers who know how trucks work and are able to play a part in helping our system function are going to be key," says Rocky Garff, head of trucking operations for Waymo. Waymo is an autonomous-vehicle company based in Mountain View, Calif., and a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet Inc.
Waymo's autonomous software and hardware are being used today in trucks that have an "autonomous specialist" in the driver's seat. According to Mr. Garff, long-distance trucks could be running without people in the cab within a couple of years - but most likely only on the highway. A human driver will need to get into the truck to take it from the highway to a warehouse.
Gatik AI Inc. is an autonomous trucking company that specializes in shorter-distance freight trips using lighter box trucks. The company is already operating end-to-end trips without drivers. The company carries Walmart loads between a distribution center and a retail store along a 7.1-mile route in Bentonville, Ark.
When trucks encounter unanticipated obstacles, such as a fallen tree blocking a road or a lane closure, remote supervisors step in, says Gautam Narang, Gatik’s co-founder and chief executive. This allows the company to keep its trucks moving and avoid delays.
When the service launched in 2019, each truck had one supervisor who assisted the vehicle once or twice per trip. Today, Gatik's supervisors step in just once or twice per week. The company plans to increase its ratio to five trucks per supervisor next year. In five to seven years, a single Gatik supervisor could oversee 40 trucks, but there will always be a human in the loop, says Mr. Narang.
Bicycles, dogs, and curious children are among the challenges for the four-wheeled robots of Serve Robotics, which began delivering meals in Los Angeles in 2018. The robots stop if something is blocking their way and wait for a remote supervisor to take over. Supervisors can direct robots around dogs and bicycles, but they have found that having the robot play dead is the best way to handle children, the company’s chief executive Mr. Kashani says. Kashani states that children will get bored and walk away if the robot is playing dead.
The machines work well when moving in a straight line on an empty sidewalk, according to Mr. Kashani. However, he notes that reality can be unpredictable, and human supervisors are often needed to take over the robot's movements if its way is blocked, or when it needs to cross a street.
As robots continue to evolve, they are becoming better equipped to solve problems on their own. Within the next year, they are expected to be able to cross intersections without needing guidance from a remote supervisor. Instead, they will stop and ask for permission to cross before proceeding.
Human operators oversee the drones that Israeli company Flytrex Aviation Ltd. uses to deliver meals to homes within a two-mile radius of five shopping malls in North Carolina and Texas. The drones fly autonomously at a height of about 230 feet to a customer’s yard, where they hover more than 80 feet above the ground and lower the food on a tether.
Flytrex's chief executive and co-founder Yariv Bash says that the company has one remote operator for every two drones in the sky. The operators scan the horizon for nearby aircraft and can, at the press of a button, order the drones home or to a pre-approved emergency landing spot. He expects that the scanning will no longer be needed once the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration complete a planned joint national air-traffic-control system for low-flying drones. Flytrex also expects to soon increase the number of drones each operator oversees to the FAA limit of 20 aircraft per person.
However, operating without supervisors is not possible in the near future, he says. "You still want a human, the people who can intervene and call the drones in case there's something you haven't anticipated."
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