As it gears up for holiday delivery crunch time, FedEx needs a few extra hands—and some of them are going to be robotic. It’s also summoning the help of smart cameras and Bluetooth-linked pods, with wheeled and winged drones in the works, too.
The Memphis-based shipping giant staged an online briefing recently for media to go over these technology initiatives and explain what’s accelerated its turn to robotic help. Yes, this is another thing you can blame on the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve been in peak since the start of the pandemic,” said chief information officer Rob Carter at the start of the webcast. The holiday delivery season, he continued, will “add peak on peak.”
FedEx’s Memphis hub now features four 260-pound robotic arms that do some of the most repetitive work in the facility: sorting and moving packages—1,200 to 1,300 of them an hour—from a bin to a conveyor belt. Each robot, made by Yaskawa America, uses its own cameras and four suction-cup grabbers.
“The team named them Sue, Randall, Colin and Bobby,” said Aaron Prather, senior adviser for technology planning and research, adding that human workers “accepted these robots as an extension of the team.”
FedEx says the humans who used to do the work of these robots have been moved over to other, less repetitive positions. In general, the company says, the goal of its new automation initiatives is not to reduce the need to employ humans but rather to to turn the most rote tasks over to machines.
“The short answer is, we will continue to hire more people,” said Rebecca Yeung, vice president for advanced technology and innovation. “As you’ve seen in the news, we just can’t hire fast enough.”
Machine vision also powers FedEx’s “Cargo Recognition and Organization System,” or Coros for short. This system, developed with Mercedes-Benz, puts cameras inside delivery vans to scan the barcodes on packages—no more need for the driver to scan each one.
It also employs programmable arrays of LED lights to tell workers where to stash each package and then which one is next to be delivered.
Beyond shaving off precious seconds each time a package enters or leaves a van, this setup also allows for much more frequent tracking.
Alas, FedEx has yet to use this data to provide recipients with a live delivery map like the one Amazon has offered to U.S. customers since 2018.
Tracking via Bluetooth
Even more fine-grained tracking is possible with SenseAware ID, a small pod that FedEx introduced in September. Taped to the side of packages, it uses a Bluetooth Low Energy transmitter to blip out its location every two seconds to compatible devices in the FedEx network.
The company is only using this gizmo with First Overnight deliveries inside the U.S., but Carter said that FedEx expects to adopt it to track deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines, whenever they may arrive.
The ultimate goal here is greater internal insight, he added: “We can see volume building up and how we best need to operate our networks.”
FedEx is also experimenting with drones. Roxo, a six-wheeled delivery robot that the company began testing last year—to the consternation of New York officials who didn’t appreciate seeing one in lower Manhattan as part of a PR stunt.
At 450 pounds, Roxo is considerably larger and more complicated than the Starship delivery robots already in commercial service across U.S. colleges, but its heft allows it to carry up to 100 pounds of cargo and go more places within its eight-mile range.
“It can climb the curb, it can go up the sidewalk, and it can go up to the porch,” said FedEx Office CEO Brian Philips. Roxo also employs a Lidar sensor to detect people in its path.
“The economics of the bot are such that it can stationed at the customers’ site,” Philips said. “It can be sent out on a mission at a moment’s notice.”
Company executives didn’t say when Roxo would exit tests now underway in Memphis; Manchester, NH; and Plano and Frisco, TX.
Drones on their way
FedEx is also testing Wing, the 12-rotor drone from a division of Google parent Alphabet, to deliver packages around Christianburg, VA, as part of a program with Virginia Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.
This aerial drone carries a package of three pounds or less below its fuselage and delivers it from a winch, vaguely like the skycrane system NASA has used to land rovers on Mars.
The regulatory climate for flying drones is much more complex than that for robots on mere wheels. Wing secured an air-carrier certification from the Federal Aviation Administration last spring, and FedEx is also conducting separate tests of drone flight integrated with airport traffic at Memphis International Airport.
Flying delivery drones can face neighbor-acceptance issues that much quieter wheeled delivery robots don’t. At a presentation at a Virginia Tech office in Arlington, VA, in January, Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership director Mark Blanks noted that, saying “If the public doesn’t want it, it’s going to go away.”
But that was before we had any hint of how bad the pandemic could get. Now, as FedEx’s Yeung put it during the webcast, “autonomous delivery is the preferred mode of delivery.”
You may, however, wait quite a few years before a FedEx delivery drone pauses over your yard to disgorge something that absolutely, positively has to be there by this afternoon.