Ground-breaking advances in robotic technologies are now reaching the point where many experts believe the technology will play a significant role in parcel logistics, from sorting to distribution, and – ultimately – for home delivery.

This new generation of robotics will be designed to work alongside human workers. The technology will be able to handle the more mundane, repetitive or dangerous tasks, including unloading, sorting and handling of parcels all day, especially heavy items.

There’s a lot of potential for robotics to streamline logistics. According to a new Robotics in Logistics trend report from DHL, currently only 5% of warehouses are automated while the vast majority (80%) rely solely on manual human labor, and another 15% are mechanized (where humans place items on conveyor belts, for example).

Why Now?

Experts have predicted robotic technology will make our workdays easier and more productive for decades. Robotics already plays a prominent role in many areas of manufacturing, including automotive, telecommunication and advanced electronics sectors. But recent advances could drive robots into the more complex world of logistics too.

Low-cost sensors, big data analytics and centralized cloud computing are boosting robotic technology capabilities. Pilot programs demonstrate the promise of flexible, low-cost and efficient robots working side-by-side with human workers. In addition, governments and private firms around the globe are stepping up their investment in this technology, providing more evidence that robotic tools will soon make significant inroads into the logistics space. In fact, venture capital money directed toward robotic technology in the first five months of 2015 eclipsed all such funding in 2014, as the DHL robotics trend report points out.

Current Challenges

That’s not to say no hurdles remain. Although robotic technology can excel at fixed, repetitive manufacturing tasks, the less structured environment of a distribution center will require more advanced capabilities. For example, this technology needs to “perceive” parcels of different sizes and shapes. Smartphone camera technology translates well here. Robotic technology also needs to quickly calculate and adjust how it picks up and moves this wide range of packages. At the same time, protecting the safety of human workers remains essential; many robotic tools in development can sense and pause when a person comes close.

Future Promise

Even as initial workplace testing is underway, experts continue improving and fine-tuning these and other robotic capabilities. Better mobility, for example, could help robotic technology precisely navigate distribution centers, accurately select and collect parcels for delivery, and significantly reduce the distances human workers now walk within large distribution centers. Technology startups are also developing robotic “hands” that emulate how humans handle parcels of many different dimensions and weights. Currently, most robots remain limited in these tasks by suction cups or two- or three-finger grips. Not to be completely overshadowed technology-wise, humans working alongside robotic technology may soon wear high-tech exoskeletons. These garments would enhance the ability of humans to safely lift and maneuver large or heavy parcels.  This promising technology is also highlighted in the DHL Robotics in Logistics trend report.

Robotics will also ultimately play a role in the “final mile solution,” experts predict. Technology will help complete ground delivery of parcels to home or office addresses, particularly in urban areas (drones may be more practical for rural delivery). Researchers are programming robots to navigate busy sidewalks and to interact in a friendly and realistic way with people when they deliver parcels to their doorstep. It may be a while still before your packages are being delivered by drones and robots, but stay tuned – it’s going to be an interesting next few years.

For more details, download the DHL Robotics in Logistics report here.

How will robotics impact your business? Let us know on Twitter at @DHLUS.