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Future of Delivery

Delivery robots, and the companies that made them, had secured over $1 billion in venture funding in recent years, but it seems that despite this financial vote of confidence, they were not ready when society needed them most.

By: Adi Gaskell, Katerva’s Futurist 

As the coronavirus has consigned huge swathes of the population to their homes, the retail sector has turned to the internet to try and maintain a modicum of normality in their trading.  Indeed, such is the boom in online trading that many e-commerce retailers have been rapidly recruiting delivery drivers to ensure that their high fulfilment standards are maintained.  Amazon alone have hired around 100,000 new people to help in their vast logistical operations.

This huge increase in manpower has been notable for the singular absence of technology.  A few years ago you could barely move in my part of London without (figuratively) bumping into a robotic delivery device.  The machines, developed by Estonian firm Starship Robotics, were being widely tested throughout London, and commenters expected them to be a common sight on our pavements in no time at all.

Similarly breathless claims were made about the prospect of drone-based deliveries, and trials were undertaken on the delivery of everything from our mail to blood samples.  When Amazon announced Prime Air earlier this year, the age of drones appeared to be upon us.  And yet, despite sales of Instacart rising by nearly 100% in March, and Amazon Fresh by 68%, neither retailer turned to robots to help them fulfil that demand.

Neither did the restaurants that have been forced to become take-away services to stay afloat.  These services were among those who had originally been testing the delivery robots, and yet our pavements are free of autonomous devices.

Missed opportunity

Delivery robots, and the companies that made them, had secured over $1 billion in venture funding in recent years, but it seems that despite this financial vote of confidence, they were not ready when society needed them most.

While companies such as Starship continue to operate, and provide services for restaurants and retailers, the impact has been very small, despite their robots largely operating autonomously and not requiring the human assistant that typically had to accompany them in initial trials.

One of the problems faced by the delivery robots is that they are legally required to operate very slowly so that more traditional sidewalk users are safe.  Indeed, in San Francisco, delivery robots operated by Postmates are only permitted to be deployed on certain sidewalks.

Shifting priorities

As with so many businesses, the pandemic has encouraged some delivery companies to change their approach.  For instance, Nuno, which received nearly $1 billion in investment from Softbank last year, has moved away from the delivery deals they had struck with the likes of Domino’s last year.  Now, the company concedes that the technology is not ready to be deployed at scale, and their robots are instead operating in a few field hospitals in California, both of which are self-contained campuses, where the machines deliver food and medical supplies, in much the same was as machines deliver car parts in many automotive factories today.

The machines, which are limited to traveling at just 5 mph outdoors, and an even more pedestrian 2 mph indoors, is hobbled by many of the same technological hurdles other robotics companies face.  Navigating unusual neighborhoods is challenging enough, but doing so when faced with a panapole of unpredictable encounters, from dogs to toddlers, makes progress often slow and cumbersome.  This has meant most devices require a human minder to ensure they don’t come unstuck en route, which is limiting enough even outside of our socially distanced times.

Going it alone

This need for humans to accompany the robots is clearly problematic during the pandemic, as is the need for most devices to be monitored via teleoperators.  Few devices are sufficiently advanced to function safely without this human intervention, and it’s not always easy to migrate this supervisory capacity to someone’s home office.  The hardware is one thing, but the reliable internet connection is something else altogether.

This manpower requirement is one of the reasons why the cost of scaling up remains so high.  Robotics company Refraction believes it would cost around $100 million to launch thousands of robots in a dozen cities.  When companies can tap into human couriers for much less, who can often provide a faster service, the virtues struggle to stack up.

For many technologies, such as telehealth, video conferencing, and remote monitoring, the pandemic has been a boon to business and proven Victor Hugo’s maxim about the power of an idea whose time has come.  This was the time for delivery robots to come to the fore, but the technology has simply not been up to the job.  Whether it will be in the aftermath of the pandemic only time will tell, but the situation has proved, if nothing else, just how far the sector still has to go.

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