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Will Gig Workers Be the Next Victims of the Robot Takeover?

Robots and drones are entering the delivery space, pairing the package with the right-size vehicle. But these new options will likely come at the expense of gig workers, who rely on cars to make their deliveries.

Wing Drone Landing Pads -- Courtesy Wing Twitter.jpg
A drone nest consists of an array of landing (and charging) pads. The black and white squares are geofiducials - they help the drones return from a mission, land and charge - all autonomously.
Image courtesy of Wing (via Twitter)
Drone and robot delivery is gaining ground with cities and retailers, as proponents call for “right-sizing” the package with the delivery vehicle.

“You’re fitting the vehicle to the mission, and the payload to the vehicle,” said Ain McKendrick, CEO of Faction, a robot delivery service. “And when we think about the future of last-mile logistics, it’s really about these mixed modes. We stop using cars, the one-size-fits-all kind of thing.”

Faction autonomous vehicles are three-wheeled devices, traveling on city streets, capable of carrying several hundred pounds. The company recently signed an agreement with one of the top retailers in the country.

“Having the right vehicle for the payload really is the future,” agreed MJ Chun, head of products at Serve Robotics, a sidewalk delivery bot service operating primarily in Hollywood and West Hollywood in the Los Angeles metro.

Chun and McKendrick were part of a panel discussion at the Micromobility America conference in the San Francisco Bay Area Oct. 19.

The growth of industries like e-commerce, delivery platforms like Grubhub and others have accelerated the American consumer indulgence in the fast, convenient and cheap delivery of nearly everything.

Wing, a drone delivery company, just signed a deal with Walmart to deliver purchases weighing up to three pounds in the Dallas metro area.

“It’s our big kind of first step in the U.S., and it’s exciting to do it with such a large partner,” said Meg Campbell, chief of staff at Wing. The company is currently working in the drone deliveries sector in Dallas, Virginia and Australia.

Breaking away from a vehicles-only ecosystem of delivery — which clogs streets, clutters curbs and adds to greenhouse gas emissions — will require a concise understanding of costs, said McKendrick.

“Our competition is the gig worker driving a 15-year-old Honda Civic. Because that kind of sets the market. It’s about $2 a mile. So your system has to compete at $2 a mile, and fit the parameters of the vehicle,” said McKendrick, adding Faction is earning about $3 a mile.

Reducing costs means reducing human intervention, say industry leaders.

“We very much focus on as low-touch as possible,” said Campbell, explaining, when a customer places an order with Walmart in Dallas, Wing gets a notification, the package is picked up and loaded.

“After that, it’s all automated,” she added. “Our pilots are simply overseeing the automation. They are not piloting the aircraft.”

The cost comes in how much a human being is interacting with the vehicle, agreed McKendrick. “Because that’s actually the cost center.”

Once the job gets to about 85 percent autonomous, “you’re already on the right side of the economics,” he added.

It’s important to understand what parts of the operation people are good at, and what parts are best left to the machines, said Chun, adding, people are good at confirmation and decision-making.

“Let the robots do what they’re good at, which is following a route, optimizing getting themselves from Point A to Point B,” she said.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.