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Tech Tools on the Job: Transportation Workers Brace for the Future

17 Dec 2015 by Teresa Meek

Technology has dramatically altered the routines of delivery drivers ... but that may be nothing compared with the innovations now under development.

Today: More efficiency, fewer errors

Instead of using workers to sort parcels, FedEx has a high-tech scanning tunnel that accurately measures dimensions and weight in about half a second. Automated sorters direct packages to the correct spots in a hub, where workers load them for delivery.

During transit, a multi-sensor device provides near-real-time data on location, temperature, humidity and shock.

Automation makes the transportation of goods more efficient and reduces human error, the company says.

At UPS, drivers no longer have to spend time each morning calculating the best route for deliveries, nor do they rely on GPS. Instead, the company uses a software platform called Orion — a thousand-page algorithm written by 50 engineers — to set routes that are efficient, yet don’t deviate sharply from paths that both drivers and customers have come to expect.

By shaving just one mile off the average routes of its drivers, the company can save $50 million a year. It expects to save $300 to $400 million when the system is fully implemented in 2017.

Tomorrow: Robotics

If Jeff Bezos has his way, delivery drivers will eventually be replaced by drones. Amazon, Google and Walmart are all experimenting with drones, which Bezos has said may someday be as common a sight as mail trucks.

Amazon has received a patent for a drone to deliver parcels to the offices or homes of its Prime customers within 30 minutes. To avoid air traffic problems, the company wants to reserve 200 feet of air space for its drones, plus another 100-foot cushion as a buffer from airplanes.

Commercial drones are currently illegal and controversial, but the FAA is expected to issue rules about their use within a year.

If sky deliveries are nixed, the founders of Skype have another idea: small, autonomous ground vehicles to deliver packages from stores or hubs to customers in 30 minutes or less. Using GPS, sensors and cameras to avoid obstacles, the little vehicles would travel on streets and sidewalks at just 4 miles an hour. Customers would order deliveries through an app, similar to Uber, and only app users could unlock the vehicles to retrieve their contents.

This article originally appeared in Volume 1, Issue 2 of Technically digital magazine.