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The robots are coming to the supply chain and warehouses near you

Smart mobile robot adoption in supply chains is growing rapidly and will far outpace drones over the next three years, according to new research.

In the Gartner report, Hype Cycle for Mobile Robots and Drones, 2023, experts said that many organizations already deploying mobile robots will expand their fleet in the next three years. It’s likely companies will have hundreds, if not thousands, of mobile robots in use, while drones will be deployed in more targeted ways, such as for inspection at a location or delivery of critical goods like medicines to remote areas.

“By 2027, over 75% of companies will have adopted some form of cyber-physical automation within their warehouse operations,” said Dwight Klappich, Vice President and Fellow in Gartner’s Supply Chain Practice. “Labor shortages and challenges retaining talent, coupled with technology advances such as machine learning and AI, will continue to drive adoption of smart robots.”

This year’s Hype Cycle includes several technologies that have been rated “transformational,” including machine learning (see Figure 1), which is expected to hit mainstream adoption within the next five years. Additionally, many technologies with “high” impact will also mature within the next few years, creating an accelerated market for increasingly capable smart, autonomous and mobile robots and drones.

Figure 1: Gartner Hype Cycle for Mobile Robots and Drones, 2023

Source: Gartner (August, 2023)

Smart robots are nearing the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” where early publicity produces success stories, but expectations rise above the current reality of what can be achieved. These AI-powered, often-mobile machines help supply chains automate multiple physical tasks. Smart robots can rely on advanced technologies such as machine learning to incorporate tasks into future activities or support unprecedented conditions.

As companies expand their use of robotics, most will eventually have heterogeneous fleets of robots from different vendors performing various tasks, which will require standardized software that can easily integrate to a variety of agents and robot platforms. As such, multiagent orchestration (MAO) platforms, which help orchestrate work are “on the rise” in this year’s Hype Cycle. MAO platforms will reduce the time, effort and cost to onboard new robots and will lower support costs, ultimately making organizations more efficient.

“In the past year, we’ve seen increased interest in smart robots and MAO platforms as companies are looking to further improve logistic operations, support automation and augment humans in various jobs,” Klappich noted. “Rapidly emerging and evolving technologies, like MAO, will enable organizations to leverage heterogeneous fleets of mobile robots to assist with more complex activities, delivering cost savings and productivity benefits.”

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Drone deliveries? Not until 2022 at least

The impact of drone technology within the supply chain has been well documented – as far back as 2013 the word ‘Octocopter’ was being banded about willy-nilly by Amazon executives.

In recent months the focus has shifted from consumer drone delivery towards drone use in the warehouse space, delivery of healthcare materials and agricultural applications.

However, it seems that we’re still some time away for drone technology to actually be realised according to a report by the Wall Street Journal, predicting completion of a regulatory timeline could take until 2022. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has admitted to being behind earlier schedules regarding the rules for commercial drone used, and this delay is a concern for industries who consider drone technology beneficial for future growth.

Rules, including flying over small crowds, past the line of sight and drone identification and technical challenges such as lack of consensus over air traffic management best practices need to be approved, all of which could take considerable time.

Back in May this year the FAA announced its Integration Pilot Program, which included 10 state, local and tribal governments as participants in a scheme designed to collect data to develop the best rules of use for drone technology.

“Over the next two and a half years, the selectees will collect drone data involving night operations, flights over people and beyond the pilot’s line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies and the reliability and security of data links between pilot and aircraft,” a spokesperson the FAA said.