It’s shaping up to be a big week for robotics in the news. In a tactical move that can only have been made with Cyber Monday in mind, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos revealed in a 60 Minutes interview that Amazon is working on a drone fleet that could deliver customers’ orders in as little as 30 minutes. The next day, word got out that UPS—the world’s largest parcel carrier—is also working on drone delivery. That was followed by news that Mayfield chipped in $6 million to commercial drone maker 3D Robotics’ $30 million September round. And that was followed by news that Google acquired seven robotics companies in the past six months as part of Andy Rubin’s project to create manufacturing and logistics robots.
Drones and robots are kind of a thing now, because we’re likely going to see a lot more of them in the near future. The use potential of drones and robots is manifold—from manufacturing and delivery to crop dusting and even childcare.
“Right now flying robots are already being used for literally hundreds of tasks, from photography, mapping, surveying and even conservation work,” said Mike Winn, CEO of DFJ-backed DroneDeploy. The company offers a smart drone management platform that builds dynamic flight paths that avoid other aircrafts, airports, and even urban areas.
“In the short term, agriculture is going to be a big opportunity for drones - performing sensing operations for farmers to help them optimize their farming activities. The technology is moving fast, with weekly developments in hardware, software and even in the use cases,” said Winn.
In the first nine months of 2013, venture capitalists poured some $41 million into drone technology, according to the National Venture Capital Association. And all of that money went into just three companies: the aforementioned 3D Robotics, which raised $30 million from the Foundry Group, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, SK Ventures, True Ventures, and Mayfield Fund; Airware, which raised $10.7 million from Andreessen Horowitz, Felicis Ventures, First Round Capital, and Google Ventures; and Remotereality Corp., which raised $17,000 from Connecticut Innovations Inc.
While commercial drones haven’t gotten the green light yet in the U.S., they’re already being utilized in other parts of the world. As Mike Winn told Vator earlier this year, farmers in Japan have been using remote control helicopters for crop dusting since the 1990s. DroneDeploy has 250 signups so far and has plans to start work in two countries in Africa.
This past summer, Domino’s Pizza in the UK made a buzz (ha, ha) when it released a short video of a drone (the “DomiCopter”) delivering pizzas. The whole thing turned out to be a publicity stunt, and Domino’s Pizza admitted that it doesn’t have any immediate plans to start delivering pizzas by drone. But a lot of people are now wondering when they can expect the DomiCopter to deliver to their address.
And there has been a whole slew of “babysitter” robots, including NEC’s PaPeRo, which uses radio frequency identification chips to keep track of kids. In 2008, Japanese retailer Aeon Co. unveiled a four-foot seven-inch childcare robot. Parents who wanted to shop sans kids could drop their children off and attach badges to them with special codes that the robots can read.
All of this begs the question: what is the human toll?
Right now, one of the biggest use cases for drones appears to be delivery. Amazon’s drones (which aren’t yet legal to deploy) could potentially deliver 5-pound parcels in quick 30-minute, 10-mile trips. That means that Amazon could potentially ship 86% of its orders by drone.
Drones could have a significant impact on UPS’s business. The company has a fleet of some 26,000 tractor-trailers and employs nearly 400,000 people worldwide. Currently, truck shipments account for 80% of cargo in the U.S. In 2012, UPS delivered 4.1 billion packages and documents.
It stands to reason that if you replace truck drivers with drones, you’re going to wipe out a lot of jobs. At present, though, the U.S. is facing a massive shortage of truck drivers. U.S. companies are expected to create 115,000 truck driver jobs by 2016, but the number of people willing to take on the long, grueling jobs (that often mean spending days and weeks away from their families) will only meet 10% of projected need, according to the Georgia Center for Innovation and Logistics.
In this case, drone deliveries will actually be taking over a job that fewer people are willing to perform these days. But what about those employed in fulfillment centers?
This year, Amazon’s total headcount increased to 97,000 employees worldwide, not including temp or contract workers. That number has tripled from the 28,300 employees the company had in 2010. As of 2012, Amazon operated 69 fulfillment centers worldwide. In California, Amazon made headlines last year when it settled its sales tax controversy by promising to locate two fulfillment centers in California, creating 10,000 new full-time jobs and 25,000 seasonal jobs by 2015.
Could all of those jobs be potentially wiped out in one fell swoop through the deployment of a fleet of robotic workers? Probably not. Quidsi is already doing it, to a certain extent--utilizing robots in its fulfillment centers to find orders, identify the most efficient box for shipping, and to move orders through the warehouse. According to Scott Hilton, Quidsi’s Executive VP of Operations, when the company began using robots in its fulfillment centers, efficiency went up by “factors of five or six.”
The innovative use of robots in the fulfillment centers hasn’t eclipsed the need for human workers, though.
But ultimately, are these the type of jobs we want to be protecting? New technological innovations give birth to their own ecosystems. As of June 2013, Apple has paid developers $10 billion altogether—$5 billion of which came just this year. As of September 2013, Facebook—which could reasonably be described as…a website—had 5,794 employees.
It’s fair to expect that the rise in drones and robots will create ecosystems just like Apple, Google, and Facebook did. And they will likely be a big economic driver.
Nanny robots still sounds like a really bad idea, though.
Image source: jubileehotel.com.au