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May the Force Be With You: Are delivery droids better than delivery drones?

By Susan Lacefield | October 28, 2015 | 8:04 AM | Categories: Supply Chain, Transportation

The first live-action movie that I saw was the original Star Wars. I was almost 4-years-old and had to sit on my knees to see over the heads to the people in front of me. From the moment that the opening credits scrolled across the screen with words that I could not yet read, I was hooked, and like many people of my age, Star Wars became my foundational myth.

So when I stumbled across this video a couple of weeks ago of lollipop-colored delivery robots, it delighted something deep within me. 

Israeli engineer designs grounded drone delivery service 

While the creator, Kobi Shikar, an Israeli engineer calls them “Transwheel Delivery Drones,” they looked to me more like something that would come out of George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic Studio. The video shows the unicycle (!) robots holding packages on their heads with robotic arms as they zipped down city streets and then using face-recognition technology to deliver the package to the correct person. (For larger packages, two or more would team up.) Yes! My heart responded. Yes! If R2D2 could deliver an appeal for help to Obi-Wan Kenobi living in his cave on Tatooine, why couldn’t a candy-apple droid deliver a box of socks to me in my triple-decker in Boston?

It’s appealing: the thought of a cute robot handing a package to you with a cheerful chirp and beep, instead of an whirring insect-like drone (with its militaristic overtones) dropping one down from on high. There seem to be fewer risks of from a small drone malfunctioning on the ground than an aerial one breaking down and dropping on someone’s head. We are used to AGVs in DCs delivering pick bins. It's an easy step to them delivering packages to consumers.

Yet, the adult me (who is more than ten times older than the me who saw Star Wars), is skeptical. Just how cost effective are these delivery drones? And how secure? What’s to stop a Jawa from waylaying a lonely drone and then selling it on the black market? What happens when a drone breaks down en route to a delivery? I want this technology to exist, but there are a lot of real-world issues that have to be figured out before Boston looks like Mos Eisley.

So it may take a while. (Indeed Shikar believes the first applications could be not in delivery networks but at airports and military bases.) In the meantime, I have a four-year-old daughter of my own, and The Force Awakens opens in just a couple of short months.

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