Amazon’s plan to dominate the shipping industry—with almost no humans involved—is taking shape

Humans will probably still be needed to fly these.
Humans will probably still be needed to fly these.
Image: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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Amazon is exploring what role autonomous-vehicle technology could have in its business, the Wall Street Journal reported today (paywall). The research is still in an early, exploratory phase, the Journal said, but hints at a larger plan of Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos: to own the delivery and logistics chain for its packages, and make it as efficient as possible.

The e-commerce giant has been implementing and experimenting with technologies to reduce its reliance on human capital and suppliers for years. In 2012, it bought Kiva, a robotics company that it’s used to help ferry items around its warehouses. The small orange robots have cut the “click to ship” cycle from roughly 60-75 minutes to 15 minutes, and have led the company to redesign its warehouses to accommodate the robots’ ability to get more goods into boxes quicker. Kiva-equipped facilities are able to hold 50% more inventory per square foot than ones without robots, Quartz reported last year.

The company has also been running competitions to encourage researchers and engineers to build a robot that can identify, sort, and pack goods from items they see on warehouse shelves. Amazon has said this task “remains a difficult challenge” for robots, but startups like RightHand Robotics are getting close. It might not be long before this sort of technology automates the majority of the work required to fulfill an Amazon order.

And Amazon is not stopping at the warehouse. The company has been very vocal about its desire to deliver goods to customers using autonomous drones. First unveiled in 2013, Amazon is getting close to sending small items to customers by drone in under 30 minutes. It carried its first test flight with a real order in the UK in December, completing the shipment just 13 minutes after the customer placed the order. This technology is still in development, and it’s unlikely to be implemented on Amazon’s home turf anytime soon. The US Federal Aviation Administration forbids drone flights beyond the line of sight of a human pilot, and that’s likely not to change until 2019 at the earliest, when NASA and a range of technology companies will deliver a plan to the administration to implement self-flying drones into the national airspace.

The company has also launched a cargo airline, Amazon Prime Air, to help it cover the fluctuations in demand that it sees at certain times of the year, such as the US holiday shopping period. Prime Air will eventually include a fleet of 40 planes, and the company has also been buying its own trucks for similar reasons. While Amazon still uses the services of shipping companies like FedEx and UPS, it does seem to be creating a structure that could completely replace its need for third parties.

Today’s announcement evokes a future where self-driving trucks could haul goods to warehouses in much shorter periods of time. As the Journal points out, human drivers can only work in 10-hour shifts, meaning it takes about four days to drive a truck across the US. But with autonomous vehicles that don’t need to take breaks, it could take as little as 36 hours to take goods cross country.

Those goods could then be offloaded by robots that can sort them into buckets for Kiva robots to store them on shelves, and carry them to other robots to pack when an order is placed. Yet more robots could load them onto drones or delivery trucks for fulfillment, meaning that in the future, it could be possible to place an Amazon order and have it show up at your door without a single human touching it.

A lot of pieces would need to fall into place for this to happen, and human workers will still be needed to oversee the robots whirring around the warehouses (and for the foreseeable future, fly the planes and drive the trucks to get the goods to warehouses). But perhaps in the distant future, there will only be one human left working at Amazon: