You’re sitting at home, enjoying a quiet Saturday when you hear a faint buzzing outside. You peer out the window to investigate, and the sound becomes more distinct, like the hum of a small motor. Suddenly, you hear a vague thud. You open the door and a box appears – your delivery has arrived. But there’s no delivery truck outside and no sign of any human being around. Chances are, you’ve just experienced your first robot delivery. Welcome to the future.
Robotic delivery – whether by land or air – may be replacing your friendly UPS delivery driver, but it’s also creating its own unique set up jobs in the new economy. With big names like Amazon investing huge dollars and efforts into programs like Prime Air, the job of delivery truck driver might be cool again. Instead of driving around a large truck and walking door to door, robot delivery operators of the future will be sitting in a comfortable chair, miles away from the homes they’re delivering to, with a remote control and a set of complex maps and coordinates, creating routes for their robotic drivers – ground or air – to complete.
Startups like Starship, an Estonia-based drone delivery organization created by Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, were recently hiring for drone delivery drivers. From the job description, Starship was looking for people to oversee a fleet of largely autonomous robots, create navigation paths and troubleshoot when the drone runs into an issue only human intelligence can solve.
“We are creating 99% autonomous robots, which means we outsource the difficult decisions to humans who are able to solve different social and traffic situations.”
Starship has some unique features that set it apart from other robotic delivery methods such as drones. For one, the unmanned vehicles are said to produce zero carbon emissions, and operate on the ground only, delivering in five to thirty minutes from any given local store. Starship says this is ten to fifteen times faster than alternative last-mile delivery methods like unmanned air crafts. And the company touts its combination of advanced driving software with actual humans to ensure that any obstacle or challenge are overcome. From their launch press release, “…navigation and obstacle avoidance software enables the robots to drive autonomously, but they are also overseen by human operators who can step in to ensure safety at all times.”
Starship robots are driven on the ground and sidewalk based – giving the robot operators unique challenges in keeping the bot safe from human interaction while en route. One of the things that Starship doesn’t mention is what happens to these land-bound vehicles if they encounter humans who try to interfere? We all know that one guy whose first reaction to seeing a robot delivery pod is to try to get in its way or mess with it in some manner. So essentially the job of an operator is to make sure the robots don’t mess up – or that some jerk on Essex Street doesn’t kick the bot onto its back like a helpless turtle.
Starship is looking for people who have a keen interest in technology and have the ability to stay alert while staring at a computer screen for hours at a time. Does this unique skillset sound familiar to any one group of humans? Perhaps the drone and robot delivery economy is carving out new career opportunities for video game enthusiasts. Sitting in a darkened room, diligently watching computer screens and mapping out paths and routes in case something goes awry sounds a lot like what gamers do every day in a variety of strategy-based scenarios. According to Statista, the number of active gamers worldwide? A staggering 1.78 million. That’s quite the applicant pool to choose from.
Land-bound robotic delivery is interesting; historically, federal and international regulations have made commercial drone usage challenging due to FAA requirements that companies have an operator with a pilot’s license and keep each drone within line of sight. In the U.S. this made it expensive and challenging to hire operators and use drones for everyday things like grocery delivery. Recent changes have relaxed these rules a bit and made air delivery for drones more possible. As for Starship – they have a unique advantage – their robots don’t need to fly.
The company began just two years ago and have already started testing their 30 beta robots in big markets from London to Seattle. How have they gotten so much done in such little time? According to a NextMarket podcast interview, Heinla said because they’ve focused on “creating basic sidewalk delivery robots” that move at a walking pace and don’t rely on computers to make every single decision, it was easier to create and test sooner. If any automation on the robot traveling at approximately six km/hour fails, its human operator can step in and complete the delivery without incident.
While automation technologies, artificial intelligence and robots may replace jobs in certain sectors – like food service and restaurants along with manufacturing and white collar industries, they’re also bringing with them different kinds of jobs. They might be less focused on brute labor and more on visual, spatial and technological skills – but certainly a trend to watch for those who predict job trends in the future. Meanwhile, Starship proves that robot technology that relies to a degree on human intelligence might have a shot at being first to market and to scale, while opening up a new kind of job in an AI-powered economy.