Sitting in his chair in an air-conditioned warehouse in the desert, the pilot gently pushes forward on the controls. Despite the high stress, he stays calm. He sees the target and delivers his payload with precision. But this isn’t Creech Airforce Base, and he’s not maneuvering an MQ-9 Reaper through the skies behind enemy lines. No, instead he’s navigating a forklift on the back of a truck in a small American city miles away, dropping off a delivery. At least that’s the vision being pursued by Phantom Auto Inc. Jennifer Smith reports in The Wall Street Journal:
Two big freight operators are betting on technology that allows workers to operate forklifts remotely as the distribution sector confronts persistent labor shortages.
Trucking company ArcBest Corp. and logistics provider NFI Industries Inc. led a $42 million investment to back startup Phantom Auto Inc.’s remote vehicle operation software and plan to deploy thousands of remote-enabled forklifts over the next several years, the companies said Wednesday.
South San Francisco, Calif.-based Phantom’s technology allows off-site drivers to operate equipment using video and audio streams, opening up freight-handling jobs to workers in other regions. Operators can switch between forklifts in different locations depending on demand.
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The funding comes as investors are plowing billions of dollars into logistics technology aimed at helping businesses blunt supply-chain disruptions and meet strong demand in a tight labor market.
Warehouse workers were in short supply before the pandemic. Staffing has gotten tougher as robust consumer spending and strong online sales strain distribution networks, limiting operators’ ability to handle new capacity.
Camden, N.J.-based NFI operates more than 60 million square feet of warehouse space and aims to deploy about 1,500 remote-enabled forklifts in the U.S. and Canada over the next three to five years.
The goal isn’t to replace workers, NFI Chief Executive Sid Brown said, but to add capacity by having people work remotely, which he said would also help recruitment, including among people who like to play videogames.
“We have thousands and thousands of forklift operators,” he said. “If we can solve 30% to 50% of our warehouse job functions by utilizing the remote forklifts, I think that’s a real win for us. And if I can position people in different time zones—maybe Asia or South America or Europe—you can get people to work that may do a second or third shift” that is harder to fill.
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