On the surface, the trial seems unimportant or even silly. After all, the robots will be practically crawling along, limited to speeds of three miles per hour, and will require a human guardian. But cute though their design may be, the Postmates robots, alongside similar projects courtesy of Amazon and FedEx, represent a disruptive challenge for real estate owners.
How, for instance, will property managers handle building access for these delivery bots? Will they be able to interface with the type of package lockers become more and more common in big buildings? Will they represent an obstacle in busy lobbies? The robots are equipped with cameras and may have other security features, but would unscrupulous individuals have the opportunity to stick a camera or recorder on the back of one and gain access to private information? Are the robots themselves subject to hacking?
Whether or not Postmates sticks their attempt at robot delivery, these are questions that will need answers sooner or later. Labor costs represent a huge portion of restaurant costs, recently averaging 31.3 percent of total sales. For companies that deliver, delivery employees can represent a big chunk of that. As in so many other areas, automation is like the rising tide; it’s up to building owners to decide how to respond.
On the other hand, if these drones prove effective it will reopen questions about how robots can be used for the business of property management itself. The robot-run hotel in Japan may be having a rough streak with its mechanical employees, but there are more practical opportunities: maintenance staff could deploy camera-equipped drones to scout out problems and identify solutions without having to be there in person. And for property managers tied up with large portfolios, having a remote controlled video chat bot could add an element of human (albeit, tech-mediated) contact when it would otherwise be impossible to be there in person.
It isn’t just ground-borne robots that require some attention; airborne drones, too, are changing the nature of real estate. Maryland is set to receive a drone facility featuring space for companies as well as a hangar capable of housing unmanned aerial vehicles with a wingspan of up to 70 feet, and at a smaller scale, arenas for hosting drone races and other sports may one day become a real consideration for owners of warehouses and similar property.
In a broader sense, seeing these Postmates robots out and about on the streets of San Fran should be a wake-up call to property owners and industry professionals alike that the property business is profoundly influenced by consumer trends and preferences. It can be easy to write off these consumer-borne changes as simply part of the retail realignment, but the truth is that what consumers want is already impacting every type of property out there, not just retail itself. This is, after all, the result of a delivery company responding to a consumer need for on-demand food.
Perhaps the best option for real estate owners is to start thinking of an automated delivery game plan right now. Putting some effort into mapping out the logistics process and how that affects staff and building alike can only help efficiency at the property as well as on the financial dashboard, even without drones in the equation. But for those managers who truly are forward-looking, perhaps the future is now: it might be time to consider how robots fit into a building’s physical and IT security strategy.
The Postmates robots themselves, with their slow, ambling speed, are a visual metaphor for the arrival of unmanned vehicles in the air and on the ground. The design and details of drone delivery are still being hammered out, but the moment that a robot replaces your brown shorts-clad UPS deliveryman or pizza delivery kid is fast approaching.