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A FedEx Express flight took off and landed without a pilot on board – furthering the discussion on the role robotics play in the supply chain industry. The flight took place at San Martin Airport in Santa Clara, California in partnership with Reliable Robotics using a Cessna 208 Caravan (C208) aircraft which is owned by FedEx Express.  In a press release, Reliable Robotics touted this flight as well as a previous test flight with a Cessna 172 Skyhawk as “historic firsts for global aviation.”

In a statement, co-founder and CEO of Reliable Robotics, Robert Rose commented, “By bringing advanced automation to aviation, we will deliver higher safety, reliability and convenience for cargo operators and eventually for passengers.”

While FedEx made no mention of this historical feat, they have continuously explored the benefits artificial intelligence can bring to their delivery operations. In 2019, FedEx successfully delivered the first commercial drone delivery to a home in North Carolina in collaboration with Walgreens and Wing Aviation.

What role does AI play in the supply chain industry? Is there room for improvement? If there was a way to successfully use robotics for deliveries – how long would it take for legislation to catch up with these advancements?

The use of robotics in different fields have continued to grow year after year – and that’s no exception for the supply chain industry. Warehouses have employed robots to help with sorting and packaging; ride-sharing giant Uber has started exploring self-driving cars; and even bars have started exploring ways that AI can reduce their overhead while still giving great customer service by serving drinks.

While robotics have always been on the supply chain industry’s radar- Covid-19 has advanced the need for intelligence. The supply chain was in serious trouble when the pandemic hit earlier this year. Shelves were empty, employees got sick, and many warehouses had to close their doors due to high infection rates among employees. Robots don’t get sick and subsequently don’t call out of work. If a pandemic were to occur again - warehouses with minimal staff and multiple robots may not be as hit as hard as before. Staff could social distance safely and robots could do a majority of the work.

Some experts believe robots can do even more with the supply chain field. In an article by Robotics Tomorrow, author Stefan Spendrup, Vice President of Sales Northern and Western Europe at SOTI ponders the role robots play in the supply chain industry and if they’re doing enough. He states, “…In order to gain the highest value, supply chains must optimise their robotic systems as part of an all-encompassing supply chain strategy, not just in silos.” By using robots in different aspects of the supply chain – it can all but guarantee that the supply chain can continue to run smoothly despite what is going on in the world.

While robotics may not solve the supply chain’s shortfalls – it can benefit from using artificial intelligence in different facets of the chain. Companies like FedEx are continuously examining new ways in which robotics can ease the burden of the supply chain while saving time and overhead cost to boot.

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 Danielle Loughnane

Danielle Loughnane earned her B.F.A. in Creative Writing from Emerson College and has currently been working in the data science field since 2015. She is the author of a comic book entitled, “The Superhighs” and wrote a blog from 2011-2015 about working in the restaurant industry called, "Sir I Think You've Had Too Much.” In her spare time she likes reading graphic novels and snuggling with her dogs.

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