One-fifth of business leaders in the transport sector believe there is considerable potential for automation in the industry within the next ten years.

That’s according to a new report from the Royal Society of Arts which estimated that around 40,000 robot units were shipped to warehouse and logistics businesses worldwide in 2016 – a figure that is expected to hit 620,000 by 2021.

Overall, the findings of the report, Age of Automation, suggest that 15% of private sector jobs in Britain have the potential to be fully automated in the next decade.  However, there was a huge variation between different business sectors, with logistics, and also retail, standing out as highly automatable industries.

The report argues that logistics businesses are being pushed to innovate by consumers looking for faster and cheaper (if not free) delivery, and identifies several AI and robotic systems that stand out as potentially game-changing for the industry:

  • Warehouse robots – in 2012, Amazon bought Kiva Systems for $775m. Its bright orange robots shuttle pallets and product shelving units around warehouses, allowing workers to pick and pack goods without moving through the aisles them­selves.
  • Supply chain management – IBM’s Watson Supply Chain uses artificial intelligence to determine the optimum route for cargo by crunching live and historical data on weather patterns, port congestion and natural disasters.
  • Anticipatory logistics – Ocado uses algorithms to optimise its warehouse storage structure, meaning popular and soon-to-be popular items are in plentiful supply and in close proximity to its picking and packing teams.
  • Self-driving vehicles – Ocado recently worked with startup firm Oxbotica to pilot the delivery of groceries in London via a driverless truck called CargoPod. Uber and Starsky Robotics are both developing systems for managing autonomous HGVs.

However, the report states that while the potential for jobs to be displaced seems considerable, what appears to be impressive technologies are often incomplete and have limited functionality.  For example, no machine can yet match the dexterity of humans to pick up items and stow them neatly into boxes.  The last Amazon Robotics Challenge revealed that even the most advanced machines continue to have difficulty handling items that are wrapped in plastic, obscured, or which bend and change shape when moved.

Humans are also likely to remain in place for ‘last mile’ delivery.  One innovation manager for a major logistics firm commented that robots would be ill-equipped to deliver to gated buildings and high-rise apartments, or where some interaction has to be made with recipients.  He also felt that delivery by drone, although a pos­sibility for rural locations, would be extremely difficult in crowded urban areas.

The report also predicts that the logistics sector will see the emergence of machines that col­laborate with human trainers and operators.  For example, Starsky Robotics’ vision is for HGVs to run on long stretches of highway unaided, and for remote drivers to take the reins in the final furlong of delivery.  The company expects each office-based driver to monitor and control up to 30 trucks at a time.  If a technology like this was to take off, it would lead to fewer HGV drivers but, arguably, better quality jobs says the report.