Ever since the first programming language was written, software technology has played a crucial role in transforming the efficiency of machines, processes, and people. Today, as software technology drives drastic improvements in outcomes and operations, we are on the cusp of a new and exciting chapter in its narrative.
The latest in software technology’s arsenal—that of making an object autonomous—is making decision-makers sit up and take notice. By integrating artificial intelligence (AI), computer vision, and sensor technology into operations, physical devices that are driven around by humans can now move from point A to B independently, without intervention. The realm of autonomous systems is unfolding at a good pace across industries. Here is a quick look at exciting updates in vehicles, agriculture, retail, and a few other sectors:
Taking performance to new heights
Autonomous systems are making inroads into many industries. In mining, autonomous trucks now transport materials from the quarry along established routes.7 And autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are being deployed to explore hazardous and abandoned mines.8 What’s more, the primary process of material handling in mines could itself be managed by autonomous systems, allowing humans to focus on more value-driven tasks. In agriculture, the first fully functional autonomous tractor is out.9 These tractors use GPS, sensors, artificial intelligence, and computer vision to ensure that they do not damage crops. They are not just self-driving but also showcase predictive maintenance and insights to help farmers make better and informed decisions.
Making the impossible, possible
Our experience of shopping at brick-and-mortar stores is going to get better. Next-gen technology might be putting the zing back in dwindling physical stores by removing cashier kiosks and billing queues. All shoppers need to do in new-age autonomous convenience stores like Amazon Go is enter, pick up goods, and exit.1 The fact that thirteen Amazon Go stores have come up within a year of the first store is testament to how well autonomous stores resonate with shoppers.2 However, the technology that creates such futuristic functionality comes with a heavy price tag. Yes, the first Amazon Go store’s hardware cost a whopping $1 million to set up.3 It is where retail brands can face a challenge. With small margins and high investments, next-gen autonomous stores, although trendy, might not be easy to roll out. Also, while these stores do not have cashiers, they will still need employees who must be able to fix issues with the software and hardware used to construct these stores.
While the front-end of the retail store is becoming autonomous, there are also great improvements to the entire fulfilment process. The convergence of robots, sensors, motion planning, computer vision and AI has resulted in fully autonomous warehouses. The entire process of tracking orders, putting goods into packages, labeling them correctly, and sending them to the right terminal for delivery has been automated.4
The next use case for autonomous vehicles is the last-mile delivery. After successfully delivering packages to Seattle’s neighborhood, Amazon Scout is now being introduced to Irvine in California. These battery-operated autonomous vehicles are helping the e-commerce giant deliver packages from warehouses to customer’s doorsteps with amazing accuracy. As of now, they can navigate obstacles such as trash cans, skateboards, and lawn chairs, and efforts are on to make them capable of climbing steps as well.10 If you order a Domino’s pizza in Houston, the chances are that they might be delivered in an autonomous vehicle. By partnering with a self-driving car technology company called Nuro, Domino’s hopes to improve last-mile delivery with the next-gen autonomous vehicles. Similarly, Ford and Domino's Pizza partner for delivering pizza in Ann Arbor Michigan leveraging self-driving cars. Last-mile delivery to China’s remote villages is now being made seamless and faster with drones.5 The Chinese retail giant JD.com is one of the pioneers in making warehouses and last-mile delivery fully autonomous. Within a couple of years, we will see many more retail companies following this model. The flip side of being a pioneer is that you are exposed to new risks, and the learning curve is steep. Venturing into the unknown territory of autonomy requires comprehensive monitoring to prevent hazards like the one that impacted the UK retail brand Ocado. As one of the first to automate warehouses in Europe, Ocado was in for a rude shock when the heat generated from its robotic setup caused a devastating fire at its autonomous warehouse. It took days to extinguish and resulted in the evacuation of neighboring residences and factories.6
These are just some of the fantastic use cases of making systems autonomous in the world around us. Giving lifeless objects the eyes to see, ears to listen, and a brain to process information is now possible with advancements in software technology. Enterprise leaders need to accurately estimate effort and cost investments before beginning on a project and must be prepared to tackle unexpected issues as they progress. They must also have a clear understanding of the distinction between making objects autonomous versus making them automatic. As we progress into this new realm of autonomy, not only for individuals but also for inanimate things, I see great potential for intelligent objects to support humans further in our evolution.