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The futurist: Creating human-free distribution networks

How long until we're there?


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 A couple weeks ago, I was asked to speak at the 8th annual Turkish Postal Symposium in Antalya, Turkey on the future of the postal industry. This was a fascinating gathering of thought leaders to discuss next generation postal service.

I focused my talk around a central question – “How long will it be before we can mail a package and have it travel to a city on the other side of the world without ever being touched by human hands?”

As we move further down the path of automation, this is a reasonable question to be asking. Once we set a package into motion, it will essentially guide itself to its final destination by way of a completely automated global distribution network.

Many pieces of this distribution network are already in place, but as we dig deeper and try to understand what it will take to achieve this level of automation, we begin to uncover not only the technical elements that still need to be developed, but also the system layers to assure global standards and compatibility.

Since packages come in a variety of shapes and sizes, it’s reasonable to assume limits on both the size and the weight, both on the high end as well as the low end. As an example, a package the size of a grain of salt or as light as a helium balloon will need to be repackaged. Mailing larger items like skis, golf clubs, or bicycles may require a different kind of delivery service.

In addition to size and weight issues will be a series of other legal requirements for shipping restrictive items like alcohol, pharmaceuticals, live animals, biohazard materials, or products with special handling requirements like fragile glass, frozen food, or pressure sensitive instruments.

Establishing limits, rules, and standards will be a critical piece to this future mega-system.

Package labeling will need to be consistent everywhere. Adding a series of sensors to the labeling tags will enable users to keep track of the location as well as the condition of the contents in real time.

Adding to Our Global Infrastructure

If we think of this level of automation extended into a worldwide distribution system like other pieces of global infrastructure, we begin to get a sense as to how it will begin to fit into the lives of everyone on earth. For example, when we make a phone call anywhere in the world, our telecom networks connect instantly.

Many fully-mechanized distribution centers already exist in Europe, Asia and North America, but this level of automation will require all countries in the world to eventually participate and create similar systems.

Mailing a Package in 2030

If we can imagine a day in the life of a common postal package in 2030 we will begin to better understand how a system like this will work.

Packages are first placed inside a designated “parcel pickup/delivery” space and a signal will be activated to begin the delivery process. Since this will be a 24-hour service, driverless drones will be dispatched instantly to make the pickup.

The sender will determine the item’s urgency and this will factor into a number of decision points along the way.

As the ground or air-based drone arrives, a robotic arm will extend out and retrieve the package. Depending on the time-sensitivity of the package, the drone may continue to make additional pickups and deliveries until it reaches capacity.

With packages in tow, the next stop will be a regional distribution center where parcels are sorted and sent on to their next stop, which may be another distribution center or a long-haul transit system like boats, planes, trains, or trucks.

Again, the time-sensitivity of the package will determine the likely form of transportation, and robotic systems will both load and unload these vehicles.

Once the parcel arrives at the final distribution center, it will be staged for delivery either with ground-based or aerial delivery drones.

In the future, there will be two kinds of addresses for delivery services - one for a typical home or office and a second one for wherever the intended recipient is at any given moment.

In the case of individual recipients, a series of automated messages will be sent to alert them that a package will be arriving shortly, and they can arrange to meet the delivery drone when it arrives.

With normal package delivery to a building, messages will also be sent when the package is delivered. Each building will have its own designated delivery area and robotic arms will be used to carefully place the parcel in the targeted zone.

There is no miracle science needed to complete this kind of infrastructure, just plenty of engineering work, and the political will and foresight to make it all happen.

Missing Pieces

Naturally, there are many missing pieces to the fully automated mega-system that will eventually be created.

1.) High Tech Mailboxes, Pickup & Delivery Pads – There is a huge opportunity awaiting for the first person who creates a universally accepted machine-dockable mailbox, as well as standardized, weather-protected pickup and deliver pads for homes and offices.
2.) Standardized High Tech Mailing Labels – Labels like this will monitor both the package’s location and the condition of its content.
3.) Automated Loading and Unloading Systems – Since several modes of transport will be involved, special attention will need to be paid to the handoff from one to the next, such as from a truck to a train or ship.
4.) Robotic Customs Agents – There will always be a need to inspect and monitor package content to prevent the distributing of illegal items.
5.) System Durability – Early systems will have countless points of failure, but over time, durable system will reduce breakdowns to less than one in a million deliveries.
6.) Trained Human Operators – As a system designed “by humans for humans,” there will still need to be a number of skilled human operators working in the background.

The list above is intended to highlight a few opportunities, but admittedly glosses over many of the details and intricacies involved in developing a complex global system like this.

The Argument for Going GlobalWhen systems are left incomplete, it requires more labor, more equipment, creating more pollution, segregation, isolation, and cultural barriers, not less.

The problem is that very few people are viewing our fragmented delivery networks as part of a larger global system. Over the coming years, global systems, involving representatives from countries all over the world will spring to life, helping to bridge the cultural barriers currently preventing mega projects like this from moving forward.

It boils down to the question of whether we are better off being a more cohesive, blended global society, or less of one.

Final Thoughts

Emerging technology and automation will make these types of mega projects affordable and technically doable, and increasing levels of connectedness are driving our need for efficient travel and shipping around the world. As technological unemployment grows, countries will be looking for mega projects to both employ and reemploy our young people both now and for generations to come.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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