Are remote controlled robots ready to deliver for grocers and drugstores?

Source: Tortoise
Mar 30, 2021
Matthew Stern

Automated grocery delivery is a retail technology that suddenly found itself with a more robust use case as the novel coronavirus pandemic made customers prioritize contact-free transactions in the interest of staying healthy.

Albertsons, for example, is working on a sidewalk-ready robot that will bring deliveries to Safeway customers. The way it works, however, differs from some of the other solutions being tested in the space.

Albertsons is testing  the automated grocery cart, made in conjunction with logistics company Tortoise, in Northern California, according to Supermarket News. Humans will accompany the cart to ensure it stays on course during the pilot. The device is controlled remotely by a live operator rather than relying on artificial intelligence to get from point A to point B.

Much of the focus in the driverless delivery space, both as regards full-sized vehicles built for the road and smaller robots built for sidewalks, has been on the use of fully autonomous vehicles rather than remotely controlled ones.

Kroger, Walmart and CVS have, for instance, piloted autonomous grocery and prescription delivery in partnership with startup Nuro, using completely autonomous Prius cars fitted with the tech provider’s self-driving technology.

Other enterprises like and FedEx have been experimenting with smaller last-mile fulfillment robots for sidewalks. Both Amazon’s Scout and FedEx’s SameDay Bot use a combination of cameras and AI/machine learning to travel and deliver without human intervention or oversight.

Retailers and startups have occasionally run into legislative hurdles in their attempts to bring driverless delivery beyond the pilot stage. For smaller robots, municipalities have shown concern about the vehicles being nuisances or dangers to pedestrians.

Regulations have been managed on a state-by-state and city-by-city basis. Recently Pennsylvania went as far as to declare delivery robots as “pedestrians,” reports Yahoo News. The move brought the state into conflict with the city of Pittsburgh and has come under criticism from accessibility advocates and transportation advocates in cities concerned about delivery robots flooding sidewalks.

The Safeway sidewalk delivery robot is not Albertsons’ only recent high-tech experiment. In January, the chain began piloting an automated, temperature controlled pickup kiosk placed in the parking lot of a Jewel-Osco location in Chicago.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is the timing right for contactless delivery using robots and/or driverless vehicles to catch on? Do you think it’s more likely that remote-controlled or AI-powered autonomous robots/vehicles will be more readily adopted?

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"At this point, robots/autonomous delivery are better suited for behind the scenes efforts"

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19 Comments on "Are remote controlled robots ready to deliver for grocers and drugstores?"

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Gene Detroyer

I was in a Tesla in autonomous mode. After getting over the concern that there wasn’t a human to handle the car, it became obvious that the car was a better and safer driver of itself than any human could be. Likewise, I conclude autonomous delivery will perform better than human-controlled.

In either case, while this has perhaps solved the last-mile problem, what happens with the last 20 yards? How is the delivery accepted into the home when there is no one home? That problem must be solved before contactless delivery truly is acceptable.

David Naumann

Autonomous delivery will one day be a reality, but it may be many years before it becomes pervasive. There are still a lot of challenges that need to be navigated. Albertsons’ test of the Tortoise robot delivery doesn’t seem very cost effective. Even without the human companion they still need to pay an employee to remotely control the robot.

Raj B. Shroff

My sense is that we are light years away from this happening at a scale suggested by the question. I am still waiting for the drone delivery phenomenon we were all so excited about five years ago.

At this point, robots/autonomous delivery are better suited for behind the scenes efforts; warehouses, loading delivery vans or for commercial deliveries where there is limited conflict with pedestrians, traffic safety and more consistency in delivery patterns.

Suresh Chaganti

Last-mile delivery is THE challenge the grocers need to fulfill. It is a combination of having a DC, MFCs, stores, and maybe even neighborhood storage within a five-minute radius. That along with autonomous vehicles like these will solve the problem.

In that sense, robots like these are one piece of the solution. They could be really good in controlled environments to do curbside delivery. The roadworthiness is not known. The technology, liability, and regulatory framework need to be in place for the robots to share the road with the public.

Rich Kizer

First thought: I am not unloading a wagon in the rain. Second: Didn’t we have other robotic carrier attempts about two years ago? What happened to those?

Jeff Weidauer

Autonomous delivery is interesting to be sure, and at some point it may become a reality. But many of those retailers putting significant effort and resources into the development of robots have yet to solve the challenges of deliveries happening now. Future planning is important, but it should not be at the expense of meeting today’s needs.

Laura Davis-Taylor

I’m joining in with the sentiment of the others. Cool and sexy? Sure. Realistic and mission-critical? Not so much. There’s also the issue of theft and vandalism. It just seems like using humans is the better route, plus it keeps people employed. Novel idea, eh?

Dave Wendland

Yes, contactless delivery via autonomous robots is definitely coming of age. However the conundrum of last-mile delivery won’t be solved by short-range robots alone. This is type of technology must be combined with other solutions. How exciting to witness the future of grocery being invented before our eyes — and you best not blink or you’ll miss it.

Oliver Guy

I love this and wonder if now really is the time for this to take off. The need for contactless delivery is new in the past 12 months so this could be a catalyst for big changes. There are some drawbacks however. They will likely work best in densely populated areas where there are footpaths/sidewalks available; direct to door delivery where steps are involved will be a challenge. Security is also a consideration – could they become targets for theft or damage?

Cathy Hotka

“The device is controlled remotely by a live operator rather than relying on artificial intelligence to get from point A to point B.” If a robot needs a human to control it on an ongoing basis, is it really a robot?

Bob Phibbs

I suppose in a Truman Show world this works. But in reality, they would be targets for kids and anyone waiting to see “what happens” when it is stolen from, kicked, or lit on fire for the latest TikTok video. I just don’t see this ever happening other than as PR for VC companies.

Venky Ramesh

Last-mile delivery is a margin sucker for all retailers and adds more cost for customers (e.g. a delivery person tip). While we won’t have a solution to that overnight, it is important to keep experimenting. Micro-fulfillment centers are already a reality, making in-store picking and packing more efficient. Autonomous robots and drones will drive value – I see them gaining wider penetration in another five to 10 years. Lastly, as Gene Detroyer pointed out, the “last yard” delivery is largely unsolved – but probably a much lower priority for the retailers as they expect customers to pick a time for delivery when they are home to collect. If they are not, then they should have some arrangement with the nearest convenience store lockboxes, from where the customer should be able to pick it up on the way home.

Ricardo Belmar

While I’m sure one day we’ll all be saying hello to robot delivery vehicles passing by, I don’t think this will happen any time soon. For most people, running into a robot delivery vehicle on the sidewalk or approach to a home is likely going to be quite jarring and invite mishaps. What happens when the recipient isn’t home? Is the robot equipped to just leave the delivery at the door? As far as remote-controlled vs AI-based, I am unsure which will happen first. It seems to me remote-controlled means the human labor cost will still remain high so how much of a savings is this for a retailer vs. simply having a human complete the delivery? This seems to be designed to alleviate any concerns over an automated AI-based robot causing injury to bystanders. I’m not sure it’s really solving a valid problem.

Liz Crawford

I agree these are better for backroom operations for speed and safety. In front of consumers – they are both a hazard and sitting duck for vandalism.

Karen S. Herman

Robotic delivery works best at a hyper local level and throughout the coronavirus pandemic, autonomous vehicles from Starship Robots were coming to the rescue to fulfill pizza, grocery and drug store deliveries all around the world, so a benchmark for AI-powered autonomous robots is already being established. If remote controlled delivery benefits the retailer and provides a frictionless experience for the customer, than I think it will work, but on a much smaller scale than AI-powered autonomous robots. To me, the mobile experience for the customer is what will make or break either type of robotic delivery. The mobile experience needs to be fast, offer actionable information, and be simple to navigate. In the end, the customer wants their purchase, no matter how it is delivered.

12 days 21 hours ago

So this thing can go on the sidewalk? I thought the sidewalk was for pedestrians. Generally speaking something wheeled and automatically controlled (motorized?) on a sidewalk would be technically illegal (like a bike) in at least some places.

What happens when this thing has an accident on the sidewalk with a pedestrian or someone’s pet?

I think I liked the drones in the air idea better.

Ananda Chakravarty

I’m not seeing the benefit of a driver delivering to a customer’s home compared to a remote robot being controlled and supervised to deliver to a customer’s home. The major cost will be labor and contactless processes in place today plus upcoming vaccinations make the remote control model moot.

I see autonomous robots delivering that can reduce the retail costs. However, beyond up front fixed costs, maybe insurance, remote delivery doesn’t provide much of an advantage unless perhaps one driver can manage 3 or more devices at once.

For the customer there is no substantive benefit over a driver and home delivery, perhaps even less so as the customer has to physically collect their goods from the device.

Ananda Chakravarty

Just to add one point from one of my tween kids: “Can we remote control it to our house?” That might be an interesting model of self service remote control….

Craig Sundstrom

If these little guys fail to catch on, it certainly won’t be for want of RW plugging for them … tirelessly. I noticed “contactless” was highlighted, presumably because that’s been of great interest lately, but it will be less so going forward (we hope!) and we’ll be left with the more prominent issues: reliability (to operate over diverse terrain and in bad weather), limited capacity and — given the first two issues — relatively high operating costs. IMHO, it will be a tough curb to climb.

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