On-demand delivery services such as PostMates and DoorDash have relied on armies of human deliverers on bikes, foot, and cars for years, with little competition from automation. Despite entrances into the delivery space from tech giants such as Uber (UberEats) and Amazon (Prime Now/ Amazon Flex), the actual process for rapid, short-term delivery has remained completely reliant on humans getting from Point A to Point B — that is, until now.
Amazon, UPS, Kroger, and FedEx are just a few of the delivery/retail giants that have started testing robots, drones, and other forms of autonomous delivery. NewtonX conducted expert calls with executives at 10 different tech/delivery giants to gain insights into the autonomous delivery landscape, the drawbacks to different approaches, and the technologies that are closest to actually replacing human deliveries.
Robotic Autonomous Wheelchairs and Parcel-Packing Drones: the Future of Urban Delivery
There are three primary areas of interest for robotic delivery service:
- Autonomous vehicles
- Sidewalk robots
In this article, we will focus primarily on sidewalk robots, as we’ve previously written about delivery drones, as well as autonomous vehicles, and neither is likely to be rolled out large-scale in the next two years.
Sidewalk robots, on the other hand, are garnering increasing interest from major retailers and delivery services. Just a few months ago, FedEx starting testing robot deliveries that consist of a motorized four-wheel carrier, developed by the founder of Segways, with a cargo compartment on top of the wheels. FedEx is calling the contraption the SameDay Bot, and is starting its first pilots in Memphis. A number of major companies including Target, Lowe’s, Walgreens, and Walmart, have signed on with the SameDay Bot for trials in Memphis.
Because the cargo compartment can be insulated for cold or hot products, it has numerous uses beyond standard package delivery: not only can it be used for food delivery, but it can also do same-day medical drop offs, which would give FedEx access to the booming prescription delivery market.
FedEx is the first legacy shipping and delivery company to introduce a robot into its logistics. The company is targeting merchants that wish to maintain control over their supply chain and partner with a delivery service for just one step. This will allow FedEx to access Amazon competitors without directly competing.
Other companies like Amazon and Postmates have developed their own solutions, though: Postmates will be rolling out its autonomous delivery cart, Serve, starting this year in Los Angeles. Customers can open the cargo hatch with their phones, or the robot can be used to bring food from restaurants in busy areas to dispatch hubs, where human deliverers complete the last mile. Meanwhile, Amazon’s Scout, a similar robot to both Serve and SameDay Bot, recently announced that it is being piloted in Washington for same-day delivery.
The robot delivery landscape doesn’t stop there: a host of extremely well-funded startups are also part of the increasingly crowded ecosystem. From the $42M-funded Starship to the $10M-funded Marble, robo-delivery is poised to become the next big thing.
The Big Robo Courrier Barrier: Keeping Sidewalks Congestion Free
Developing a regulatory framework for robotic deliveries will be the key to success for all of these companies. In December, San Francisco delivered a blow to the industry by limiting companies to three robots each with only nine total allowed in only low-population parts of the city. The delivery robots can travel at a max speed of three miles per hour and have to be monitored at all times by humans.
Regulations like this are obviously not scalable or cost-effective for delivery, and companies will need to work hand in hand with cities to ensure that their robo delivery carts are safe, don’t contribute to congestion, and don’t decrease overall citizen quality of life. However, based on the NewtonX expert consultations, sidewalk robots are expected to be more palatable to cities than either drones or autonomous vehicles. There will be growing pains — just as there were with sidewalk scooters like Bird and Lime — but ultimately major companies are expecting robo deliveries to be rolled out in the near future.