A couple years ago I was asked to keynote the 8th annual Turkish Postal Symposium in Antalya, Turkey on the future of the postal industry. This was a fascinating event where thought leaders from around the world gathered to discuss next-generation postal systems.
I focused my talk around a central question – “How long will it be before we can mail a package and have it travel to a city on the other side of the world without ever being touched by human hands?”
The example I used was a package traveling from Istanbul to San Francisco without human contact.
Thinking through the path of automation, this is a reasonable question to be asking. Once we set a package into motion, it will essentially guide itself to its final destination by way of a completely automated global distribution network.
Mailing a Package in 2030
As I envision the process, whoever is sending a package will simply place it on their front doorstep and take a photo of it with a special shipping app on their phone. This will start the process, detailing the package size, dimensions, and GPS coordinates, and the sender will add particulars such as destination, level of urgency and weight category (i.e. under 10 lbs). Within a short while, a robotic pickup service will arrive, retrieve the package, and load it onto a drone delivery vehicle.
While the sender will know the price range at the time they put it into the app, they will get exact pricing once the package is picked up, along with tracking details, and exact time of delivery.
Several pieces of this distribution network are already in place, but as we dig deeper and try to understand what it will take to achieve this level of automation, we begin to uncover not only the technical elements that still need to be developed, but also the necessary system layers to develop global standards and compatibility.
Since packages come in a variety of shapes and sizes, it’s reasonable to assume limits on the size and the weight, both on the high end as well as the low end. As example, a package the size of a grain of salt or as light as a helium balloon will need to be in a larger package. On the larger end of the spectrum, mailing items like furniture, exercise equipment, or motorcycles will require a different kind of delivery service.
In addition to size and weight issues will be a series of legal requirements for shipping restrictive items like alcohol, pharmaceuticals, live animals, biohazard materials, or products with special handling requirements like fragile glass, frozen food, or sensitive instruments.
Establishing limits, rules, and standards will be part of the critical thinking process necessary for developing this future mega-system.
Today’s delivery systems place a heavy emphasis on using a standardized shipping label for every package, however the label itself could be produced by the delivery service and coded onto the package once it’s been picked up. In some cases, it may be beneficial to work with specialty sensor labels to track the condition of sensitive contents in real time.
The pickup problem
Retrieving a package from someone’s front door presents a huge number of engineering challenges.
First, the robot will have to travel to and from where the package is. Obstacles could include stairs, trees, broken sidewalks, no sidewalk, dogs, cats, squirrels, snakes, rain, hail, snow, children, rocks, and mud to name just a few.
The package could be square, round, triangle, rectangle, or an odd shape that is hard to describe. The outer material of the package could be cardboard, paper, plastic, cloth, synthetic, loose, tight, waterproof, air tight, porous, full of static, oily, wood, or leather.
There could be fences, gates, security guards, locked doors, motion detectors, nosey neighbors, piles of leaves, or overgrown lawns.
Timing is also an issue. A package left outside for 2 minutes will generally be fine, but one left exposed to the elements for 30-60 minutes could have any number of things go wrong.
For this reason, the relatively simple task of retrieving a package can be riddled with complexity.
A new kind of global infrastructure
As an overarching trend, we are transitioning from national systems to global systems, and every piece of system-level infrastructure becomes an essential part of the overall network.
If we think of this growing into a worldwide distribution network, we begin to get a sense as to how it could change the lives of virtually everyone on earth.
Many fully mechanized distribution centers already exist in Europe, Asia, and North America, but this level of automation will require countries around the world to develop many additional layers of standards and compatibility.
With normal deliveries to a building, messages will also be sent when the package is delivered. Each building will have its own designated delivery area.
There is no miracle science needed to complete this kind of infrastructure, just plenty of engineering work, and the political will and foresight to make it happen.
The missing pieces
Naturally there are many missing pieces to the fully automated mega-system that will eventually be created.
1.) High Tech Mailboxes, Pickup & Delivery Pods – There is a huge opportunity awaiting for the first person who creates a universally accepted machine-dockable mailbox, as well as standardized, weather-protected pickup and deliver pods for homes and offices.
2.) Standardized High Tech Mailing Labels – Labels like this will monitor both the package’s location and the condition of its content.
3.) Automated Loading and Unloading Systems – Since several modes of transport will be involved, special attention will need to be paid to the handoff from one to the next, such as from a truck to a train or ship.
4.) Robotic Customs Agents – There will always be a need to inspect and monitor package contents to prevent the distributing of illegal items.
5.) System Durability – Early systems will have countless points of failure, but over time, durable systems will reduce failures to a fraction of today’s human centric systems.
6.) Trained Human Operators – As a system designed “by humans for humans,” there will still need to be a number of skilled human operators to step in whenever something goes wrong.
The list above is intended to highlight a few opportunities, but admittedly glosses over many of the details and intricacies involved in developing a complex global system like this.
Over time the need for boxes and packaging will decline and eventually disappear altogether as super smart systems know how to deal with every object on a piece by piece level.
The argument for going global
Developing something this grand will require an amazingly talented team lead by a Global Systems Architect. This will be a person who is globally sophisticated, unusually driven, and capable of working through a wide range of cultural, diplomatic, legal, and technical issues without losing perspective.
A global system will be terribly disruptive, causing a number of today’s key players to lose power and control.
Over the coming years, global systems, involving representatives from countries all over the world will spring to life, helping to bridge the cultural barriers currently preventing mega projects like this from moving forward.
It boils down to the question of whether we are better off being a more cohesive, blended global society, or less of one.
Our need for mega projects like this is explained in a previous column of mine about coming explosion of “Global Megaprojects.”
First, we’re seeing a shift in power towards megacities. As people relocate from rural to urban communities and population clusters grow, so does the demand for major infrastructure improvements to help manage the traffic, water, sewage, power, and living strains of these growing economies.
Second, the wages paid for workers building infrastructure projects will improve the local economy to a point where other megaprojects become viable.
Third, as global awareness improves, so does the desire to standout and impress the rest of the world. Megaprojects become a source of national pride and a status symbol for emerging economies.
Fourth, we are moving into an era of technological unemployment where jobs are automated out of existence at an unprecedented level. The demand for new jobs will trump most other arguments.
As our list of megaprojects grows, we will see more spending on infrastructure in the next 40 years, than we have in the past 4,000 years.