Drones, Robots, and Self Driving Vehicles: Reshaping the Logistics Industry

by Matthew Wittemeier

Drones, robots, and self-driving vehicles seem to have become weekly discussion topics for the logistics industry. With major players such as Amazon, Google, DPD, UPS, and even 7-Eleven committing serious resources to the development of the technology, there is consensus that the technology will play a crucial role in the future of the transport industry. If we accept this argument, then as an industry we must begin to consider the way this will impact delivery organizations around the globe so we can start to prepare our systems, processes, and people for what's to come.

In this three-part series on drones, robots, and autonomous technologies, I'll take a closer look at how robotization and automation can collectively come together to reshape the transport industry. In part one, I traverse what role each technology might play in the future - does the hype match the reality? In part two, I assess how they might come together to reshape the future collectively. In the final installment, part three, I investigate some of the ways that the existing supply chain's systems, processes, and people might have to evolve to benefit from these autonomous technologies.

Part 1 - Reshaping the Future

Several autonomous technologies stand to shake up the parcel logistics industry including drones, delivery robots, self-driving cars, and driverless trucks. For the sake of this discussion, these will be divided into aerial (drones), land (robots), and automotive (self-driving or driverless vehicles) technologies. While each will transform some part of the logistics system, collectively they can fundamentally reshape it moving forward.

One can easily imagine a future not dissimilar to the current state whereby a parcel is carried between major central hubs by driverless trucks before being shuffled to a local depot for dispatch by a driverless van equipped with a team of delivery robots who will facilitate the final leg to the door or parcel drop. While this is certainly a step forward, this is far too simplistic. The real benefit of autonomous technologies lie not in their ability to fit within the current distribution model, but rather to reshape it!


There is much hype about drones providing a 10-30 minute aerial delivery service for lightweight (generally up to 2.5kg) consumables. While this will allow companies to offer a "convenience" service in the future, it is not where they will deliver lasting value. Drones can redefine the supply chain of the future - their real value lies in their ability to offer pickup and drop-off at ad-hoc locations. This enables drones to provide dynamic, new services that were never before possible.

Imagine this, you've forgotten your office keys at home. In today's world, this would mean that you would have to return home to collect them. For many commuters, this means an hour or more of lost time. In the future, you'll use your smartphone to order and pay for a drone to pickup the keys from your home and deliver them to you as you arrive to work. The entire service will be individual to you without rigid logistics frameworks.


Robots come in all shapes and sizes and will offer a very broad range of delivery options to logistics companies. From fleets of small and medium sized robots delivering standard packages through to larger individual robots capable of delivering heavy packages, the future will certainly include robots. Robots will not only replace their human counterparts but like drones, will also open the door to innovative new services.

The flexibility to operate 24/7 to provide incredibly speedy service will reshape how consumers approach common household scenarios. In the future, when your child comes down with a fever late at night, you won't be packing them into the car and driving to the hospital. No, you will consult with your GP via remote consultation, and they will dispatch any required medicines or equipment via robot from your preferred pharmacy. The entire process will likely take 30 minutes from start to finish, and anyone with children knows this is a dramatic improvement from the status quo today. Robots will not only open new delivery options to end users; they'll empower a greater shift toward remote services, and forward looking logistic companies will enable these transformations.

Self-driving Vehicles

Self-driving vehicles have been making headlines for decades, however, it is their recent history that is the most promising. In 2015, Daimler received a license to operate its autonomous truck in Nevada, US. Self-driving vehicles are already challenging the status quo and making their way into the market.

In the future, self-driving technologies will move from trucks into vans and eventually to cars. As this happens, more and more parcel delivery vehicles will transition from manned to unmanned. This adds to the ability of parcel operators to run 24/7 operations that aren't dependent on human appropriate working hours. Autonomous vehicles will further enable the other technologies noted above, particularly drones and robots further expanding their effective ranges from their primary depots and parcel operators flexibility to continuously respond to market conditions with mini "pop-up depots".

Innovation is Key

In short, each of these technologies allows us to imagine a better tomorrow powered by innovation and outside the box thinking. On their own, each technology has the ability to reshape the way consumers interact with parcel operators. Collectively, they present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to parcel operators to create truly innovative services that will reshape how consumers interact with commerce markets forever, but I'll leave more on that for Part 2 - Bringing it all Together.

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About the author

  • Matthew Wittemeier

    Matthew Wittemeier is Director Marketing and Sales at INFORM's Terminal & Distribution Center Logistics Division where he’s become a thought-provoking contributor to many industry publications and conferences. He’s also co-author of the award winning 2038: A Smart Port Story - a story about the future of technology and the social challenges it may bring.

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