Do robots make sense for online delivery?

Discussion
Image: Starship Technologies
Jul 12, 2016
Tom Ryan

Will robots on the ground prove more effective at delivering online purchases than drones in the air? A test of self-driving robots delivering packages, groceries and food is taking place in London, Düsseldorf in Germany, and Bern in Switzerland.

The test comes from Starship Technologies, an Estonian startup from Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis. Partners in the test include European food delivery company Just Eat, London food delivery startup Pronto.co.uk, German package delivery firm Hermes and German retailer Metro Group.

With an aim to “make local delivery, almost free,” the robots are designed to deliver goods in 15 to 30 minutes within a two- to three-mile radius. Using an on-board GPS system, camera and various sensors, the six-wheeled robots navigate around obstacles and follow traffic rules. The devices drive autonomously while being monitored by human operators in control centers. When a robot reaches its destination, customers type in a code that has been sent to a mobile app to open the lid and collect their merchandise.

Introduced to European and American cities since the end of last year, the robots have driven close to 5,000 miles and met over 400,000 people without a single accident.

“Nobody likes to spend hours waiting for the courier just to have a parcel delivered,” said Frank Rausch, CEO of Hermes Germany, in a statement. “Therefore, individually scheduled delivery services will become increasingly important within the coming years.”

James Roy Poulter, CEO at Pronto, added, “We hope to see the streets lined with thousands of these robots bringing people their hot, ready-to-eat Pronto meal on-demand and providing an even more cost-effective, efficient and environmentally friendly delivery solution for our customers.”

A similar program will be announced for the U.S. shortly.

Mr. Heinla, Starship’s CEO, told Wired last November that ground-based robots won’t merit the level of safety concerns and regulation hurdles that drones are facing as delivery vehicles.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you see as the potential benefits and drawbacks to using ground-based robots to make deliveries? Do you see robots eventually playing a large role in supporting deliveries?

Braintrust
"It's great to see investment and innovation aimed squarely at some of the biggest challenges facing the fastest-growing retail channel."
"I’m actually a bit surprised at the pilot program’s success to date."
"This whole attempt to refine the supply chain is beyond stupid. People need jobs — let them carry packages vs. robots."

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18 Comments on "Do robots make sense for online delivery?"

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Bob Amster
BrainTrust

Robot traffic jams!

Keith Anderson
BrainTrust

The potential benefits are clear: labor and fuel costs are the critical barriers to economically sustainable last-mile logistics, and efficient, autonomous delivery vehicles would profoundly improve the economics of e-commerce and home delivery.

There’s a lot of uncertainty around reliability, theft and interference, temperature controls, and regulatory compliance. But it’s great to see investment and innovation aimed squarely at some of the biggest challenges facing the fastest-growing retail channel.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

Does anyone envision the impact of lots these little robots on the sidewalks in a busy city center? I was downtown in Chicago last Friday morning and the sidewalks hardly had enough space for the people on them.

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

not sure how the robot will walk up my front stairs and “hide” the package behind the planter, but I’m sure that will be in the next release.

Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

As retailers try to increase consumer benefits while squeezing costs out of their business models, it’s inevitable that they will turn to drone and robot delivery. The key potential sticking points are safety and congestion. Look at the publicity that was generated when someone was killed in a Tesla on autopilot, and Teslas have logged more than a million miles. Driverless vehicles are here to stay and will eventually win mass acceptance.

J. Peter Deeb
BrainTrust

Great idea and the tests seem to be working. Is it possible that in 10 years there may be too many of these clogging traffic in major cities? The application in suburbia may be much more difficult to make it work. I have confidence that the technology will be there but the complexities of distance, size of orders, etc., may make this many years away.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Everyone knows that driver-less vehicles are coming, but the economics of having jalopies like these delivering $11 meals is improbable at best!

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

The concept is great, but the details are what separate theories from reality. As others have said, on crowded urban sidewalks, it’s a very different scenario than in the burbs. And when an incident does happen (it will) who has precedence over the use of a public thoroughfare designed for and used by pedestrians for centuries?

I absolutely believe this will happen with road-based vehicles when autonomous vehicles are the norm on roads.

Tom Redd
Guest

This whole attempt to refine the supply chain is beyond stupid. People need jobs — let them carry packages vs. robots. The postal service is doing fine with this added function of package delivery. Our local post guy even shows up on Sundays with some deliveries. Robot shootings will make prime time … and cars veering off the road to hit a robot. New video games will appear — “KILL THE BOTS” … Robot firms will be in court over robots running into bikes or blocking emergency vehicles.
This is as bad as JeffZon’s drone package delivery PR pitch.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Tom great points. I hope your comments will be reviewed when these incidents are being reported. Automation stealing jobs in many sectors including white collar over the next couple of decades is a societal topic most are in denial of. When it is addressed those with agendas claim that the drivers, pickers, laborers, writers, social media managers, etc., will be retrained as robot repair people. Not going to be so.

Lesley Everett
BrainTrust

I’m pretty skeptical about this ever working but then so were some about the internet! Who knows … However even if it did, it seems a shame and a move in the wrong direction to remove yet another human interaction and touchpoint opportunity. So many questions to ask — is it not just far simpler, better for community and potentially cheaper in the long run, to have people in jobs doing this?

Bill Hanifin
BrainTrust

Other than crowding the streets with these little minions, and the probability of package theft and machine vandalization, I can’t see any issues here!

Beyond the sarcasm, I wonder if the better societal investment would be to optimize a model similar to “Delivery Dudes” in order to provide employment opportunity for people in lower-wage ranges as opposed to pushing this element of retailing to a mechanized solution.

Let’s not forget the importance of customer experience in retailing. Self-checkout and delivery by drones and robots takes one opportunity for communication and service away from the retailer. Once the cool-factor evaporates, I question the longer-term benefits of this strategy.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

This is possibly a step in the right direction to satisfy our lazy, decadent selves. Ahem, Garcon, pass me the grapes. Don’t have any? Have the robot bring them.

At any rate this is likely a piece of a solution, but I suppose there will many pieces in order to meet our varied and many needs.

For my 2 cents.

Larry Negrich
BrainTrust

The challenges of robot delivery (increased traffic, limited capacity, range, liability) for delivery paths requiring immediacy or variable delivery location would appear to make this option less viable than others available today. However, for scheduled deliveries or pickups to fixed locations at off-hours for example, robots may have a marketable purpose.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

I’m actually a bit surprised at the pilot program’s success to date. I would think vehicular accidents, pedestrian injuries and outright theft would be just a few of the potential issues. The benefits are many, including labor cost extraction, variable delivery times, etc. If the track record is accurate, this may have “legs.”

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

Robots are already running many warehouses and it’s a natural next step to move into delivery. Just like everything else it will be driven by economics. Of course, safety and congestion issues will need to be addressed. The real trick will be giving the delivery bots an AI personality to interact with their clients.

Arie Shpanya
Guest

Potential benefits are convenience and efficiency if done right, but there’s also quite a bit of risk involved (theft and the effect on traffic as it scales for example) at least in this early stage. This is still an early iteration of the model and I’m excited to see if and how it can be perfected over time.

Herb Sorensen
BrainTrust

With self-driving cars well along in development, delivery robots are a no-brainer. The concept, that is, execution is an entirely different issue. Even if the robot is competent, there are many questions about sharing lanes with pedestrians, cyclists and cars.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"It's great to see investment and innovation aimed squarely at some of the biggest challenges facing the fastest-growing retail channel."
"I’m actually a bit surprised at the pilot program’s success to date."
"This whole attempt to refine the supply chain is beyond stupid. People need jobs — let them carry packages vs. robots."

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