Shropshire Star

I went behind the scenes at an Amazon lab and found how robot drones will soon be flying our parcels to us

Drones delivering parcels to your door may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but they will be coming to the UK before the year is out, says an online retail giant.

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Amazon has developed drones which will be delivering parcels in the UK by the end of the year

Amazon has pledged to invest £600 million in robotic and AI technology over the next five years, and the new drone service will enable customers to receive their deliveries within an hour of placing their orders.

The global online retailer invited us to its innovations research laboratory in Vercelli, northern Italy, to see how robotics are being used to revolutionise the way it sends out parcels.

Stefano Perego, Amazon's vice president for North America and Europe, says artificial intelligence and robotics are being used to improve safety at work, environmental sustainability, as well as improving the customer experience.

Amazon has developed drones which will be delivering parcels in the UK by the end of the year

Drones are already being used to deliver small parcels in the United States. And the company says it will be launching a similar service for items of up to 5lbs (2.2kg) in the UK by the end of the year – although it has yet to decide which part of the country will be first to benefit.

Much of the technology looks like something from the science books of our childhood, which predicted that by the Millennium we would be wearing spacesuits and travelling to work by monorail.

One of the most striking innovations are the moving shelves, which are already in operation at the company's new West Midlands warehouse in Minworth, near Sutton Coldfield.

Mark Andrews at Amazon's Operations Innovation Laboratory in Vercelli, northern Italy

Workers at the company's previous base in Rugeley would walk several miles a day around the vast warehouse picking up items from the many thousands of shelves across the vast warehouse. But there is no such need at the new centre, which opened last year: instead the 'pickers' scan a barcode into a hand-held gun, and the Amazon Robotic Floor – a small driverless vehicle – brings the shelves to the operative.

In a similar vein, The Automated Guided Cart (AGC) is a flat, autonomous robot on wheels that slides under stacks of empty totes, and automatically carts them around warehouses.

In so doing, it reduces the need for employees to push or carry heavy loads over long distances. Sensors on the bottom of the robot read a magnetic tape on the floor to self-navigate, while safety scanners detect if any people or obstacles are in the way so the cart can slow down or stop, until the path is clear.

The barcodes, which are unique to each order, are crucial to controlling the robots. But while in the past this required large numbers of staff to man the conveyor belt, scanning the items are in the correct position, the new Flat Sorter Robot Induct – a mechanical arm which uses suction cups to pick up and put down small packages, means that this is no longer necessary.

Amazon will be using drones to make UK deliveries by the end of the year

Pat Lindner, Amazon's vice-president in charge of mechatronics, is keen to stress the role the new technology can play in reducing the amount of packaging used in its deliveries, to the point where he envisages the company's familiar cardboard box, if not quite consigned to the history books, will be a less common sight.

"More than 50 per cent of our packages in Europe are now distributed in either a bag or a cardboard envelope," he says.

"We have now developed a weatherproof lining for cardboard envelopes, which means they can now be used to distribute packages which would have previously required a box."