A Chinese delivery company is now using a huge army of little orange foot cushion-shaped robots that are capable of autonomously and accurately sorting up to 200,000 packages a day in its warehouse.
A video has gone viral in China showing the robots working together to sort the packages out in a Shentong (STO) Express sorting centre in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, according to state media.
The robots, provided by Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology, are squat and self-contained, similar to a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. The robots have sensors that enable them to communicate with each other so that they don't bump into each other on the warehouse floor.
Human workers stand at a conveyor belt receiving packages. The human worker places a package on top of the robot, which scans the package and works out where its end destination is meant to be, as well as weighing the package.
The robot then proceeds to the correct hole in the floor, where a chute beneath the floor leads to a mail bag or some other sort of container. When the robot reached the correct hole, it stops and then tilts itself sideways to tip the package into the chute.
Robots' software organises traffic to prevent accidents
What is truly interesting about this system is that hundreds of the robots can be in operation at once sorting packages out to different locations without human intervention, but none of the robots have an accident or bump into each other.
The sensors on the robot warns it to maintain a set distance between itself and the robot in front of it, and the robots have been programmed to slow down if they come to an area where there are multiple robots interchanging to continue travelling in different directions.
The software decides which robot has right of way if the two robots meet at a juncture, and one robot politely waits while the other proceeds. The robots are also very careful to avoid the holes in the floor, even when travelling at speed.
When the robots run out of battery, they automatically go back to a charging point by themselves to charge, meaning that the system could in theory be left in operation 24 hours a day to continue sorting packages with each new shift of human workers. At the moment, the robots have been trialled only on the evening shift from 6pm for either six or seven hours at a time.
"We use these robots in two of our centres in Hangzhou right now," STO Express' spokesperson told the South China Morning Post. "We want to start using these across the country, especially in our bigger centres."
Use of industrial robots grew by 30.4% in 2016. The Chinese government has a target that it would like annual production of industrial robots to reach 100,000 per annum by 2020.