“In the last year or two, people have taken advances in AI and machine learning and said ‘we can make a real business case here, whether it’s lowering costs or improving efficiency or whatever,” says Matthew Johnson-Roberson, director of the robotics institute at Carnegie Mellon University.
Johnson-Roberson says years of investment in areas like self-driving vehicles, combined with a steady cadence of advances in AI, will allow robots to creep into more workplaces. “My hope is that we’re just at the beginning of a coming wave in commercial robotics.”
The FedEx robot was built for the company by Dexterity, a startup based in Redwood City, California, that specializes in developing robotic systems for various warehouse tasks, using AI.
Dexterity CEO Samir Menon says the robot built for FedEx uses generative AI to work out how to stack boxes of various kinds. It also uses AI to identify and grab the boxes. But these systems need to be woven together with careful engineering, Menon says.
Each time it places a box in a stack, the system uses force-feedback to ensure the package fits tightly, and it also scans the stack using cameras and depth sensors to see how it compares to its existing model. Any discrepancy will require the robot to adapt its stacking plan as it goes along.
The growth of ecommerce—and particularly Amazon—has turned working with packages into an innovative frontier for robot development. Amazon is currently rolling out thousands of more advanced robots as it continues to squeeze greater efficiency out of the facilities where it stores and processes products.
Truck unloading and loading “presents a harder challenge” than the picking work that robots currently do in warehouses because it happens in a tight space with a variety of boxes, says Pulkit Agrawal, a professor at MIT who specializes in AI and robotics. There are ways to engineer the system that can “reduce the complexity,” but the demo is still impressive, he says.
If AI accelerates the adoption of robotics, it might spark fears of job displacement. The ongoing US auto worker strike is partly related to technological trends sweeping that industry, including electrification and autonomous driving.
Yeung says the robot is still being perfected, but it should eventually load a van as quickly as a skilled human. FedEx already uses robot technology developed by another company, Berkshire Grey, to sort parcels inside some facilities. It spent $200 million on these systems in 2022.
Yeung declined to say how many of the robots FedEx will deploy or how quickly, and data on their reliability is still being gathered. But the capabilities demonstrated by Dexterity’s robot should transfer to other tasks so that robots can take on more jobs at FedEx. “This is a big deal for us,” she says. “We’re excited about these next-gen capabilities improving our operations.”