Working from home… in blue collar jobs


An interesting article in Wired, “Now physical jobs are going remote too”, looks at how a growing range of traditionally physical jobs, such as driving a forklift, can now be carried out from anywhere via a computer.

In the case discussed in the article, a forklift operator working for Phantom Auto remotely loads a truck with pallets and moves containers around a warehouse he has never set foot in, using a program with a steering wheel and pedals similar to those used in many video games, while his monitor provides 360-degree camera shots of the vehicle.

To all intents and purposes, the forklift appears to be driving itself and relies on obstacle detection and collision avoidance algorithms to move around the warehouse. However, when it comes to carrying out certain operations, the company says that sometimes the complexity of the environment means full autonomy is too dangerous, so it makes sense to have human operators in charge, even if they are not physically present, in case the internet connection is lost.

In other situations, it’s also possible to operate three-dimensional robotic arms remotely or supervise automated operations when the machine hesitates in a certain situation and has to make a choice, and which can be made by operators who can be located anywhere, simply observing events until the moment when their participation is required. Order processing (pick & pack), for example, often requires a robot to take items from a location and place them in a cart, but in many cases, it encounters items that it does not know how to handle or has difficulty with, and requires some kind of human instruction to be able to do so. Robots can also be used to carry out surveillance or logistics, but still, require the help of a human operator located elsewhere when they encounter some kind of unexpected situation such as having to address a human.

Human teleoperation is becoming more important as technology enables the automation of more and more operations, but is still at a stage where it is not yet possible to completely dispense with people. In the future, many of these operations will likely be carried out remotely, with supervisors wearing a virtual reality visor that would allow them to perceive the environment more realistically.

Will we soon start seeing job descriptions such as “automatic forklift operator” and machines moving around apparently on their own in warehouses, stores, and other locations?

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