Will delivery robots become a common sight on city streets?

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June 14, 2017

Take a stroll down a city sidewalk and there’s a rapidly growing chance of spotting a small delivery robot charting its course through crowds of people, buggies and pets.

Two-foot tall, cooler-shaped delivery ground drones have already taken to the streets of the US state of Virginia, London, Germany, the Netherlands, Washington, D.C. and California in advanced trials which are offering new possibilities for short, urban deliveries.

Estonia-based Starship Technologies, former co-founders of Skype, are behind many of these personal couriers that can deliver anything from Hermes bags to Domino’s pizza. Other companies that have entered the game include San Francisco-based Marble, with a meal-delivering robot, and TeleRetail, a Swiss start-up with a prototype ‘bot that could cover up to 50 miles.

Although aerial drones have been grabbing headlines, ground drones may prove to be a more viable option than their airborne counterparts — they can carry more weight and will probably not be as heavily regulated. So it’s no surprise that many companies are looking into testing ground delivery robots. “Everyone from Fed Ex to Domino’s to food delivery companies Postmates and DoorDash are getting involved, but it is also an interesting, global phenomenon,” says Aaron Ahlburn, Managing Director of Industrial and Logistics for JLL’s Americas region.

The automated alternative

Getting goods from a storage facility to a person’s door, called “last-mile delivery,” is the most costly and inefficient part of the delivery process.

“By providing an automated alternative to delivery, delivery robots have the potential to get goods to the consumer in a cost-effective and efficient manner. We think that after the initial capital investment, there will be cost savings,” says Ahlburn.

Here’s how they work: After a consumer places an order, they receive a code through text message. When the delivery robot, traveling at a pedestrian-friendly 4 miles per hour, arrives at the door, the consumer uses the code to open an insulated container that stores the item.

The Starship robot has a 20-pound limit on how much it can carry. Therefore, it mostly delivers takeout food and groceries. But almost anything that weighs 20 pounds or less could work. Starship partnered with Hermes, for example, to deliver packages around London, says Ahlburn. It took between five and 30 minutes to make a delivery and cost as little as 60 cents.

Similar projects are also showing the same results. UC Berkeley’s online delivery service Kiwi uses a KiwiBot to deliver food and personal care items around campus. “Those robots were reported to allow the deliverers to decrease their delivery fees by 80 percent,” says Ahlburn.

Challenges to the utopian dream

Delivery robots, while new and exciting, face several challenges. “One is their range and battery life,” says Ahlburn. These robots may be initially limited to urban locations, college campuses and large office parks — places with high volumes of people within short distances.

And while trials involve small numbers of these little robots, commercial operations would require a much larger fleet. “This brings up the questions of where to store them and where home base would be,” says Ahlburn. One possibility, he points out, is to place the delivery units in a van and drive them to a location to be sent out from there. “So human intervention is still needed,” Ahlburn says.

Security is another issue. Although the robots have an alarm system and camera to prevent theft, people might still try to take or destroy them. And there’s always the possibility of hackers trying to steal what’s inside or cause mischief.

Safety has also caused concerns with San Francisco taking steps to regulate the number of delivery robots on its streets. Other rules also apply; robots can only operate in certain industrial areas and must be accompanied by a human.

Whether mobile delivery robots are just a novelty or whether they’ll take off remains to be seen. “These robots are very much in their early stages and there are plenty of unanswered questions around the challenges and opportunities,” says Ahlburn. “As a concept it has potential but much depends on how consumers respond, how their use can be scaled-up and how different cities react to having them on the streets.”