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Robotics and Contactless Engagement

Autonomous Delivery Technology

The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant health and economic impacts across the world. One of the secondary effects is that the coronavirus is accelerating the adoption of technology, as has tended to happen in global crisis events throughout history.

We recently discussed how the coronavirus outbreak is driving rapid advances in 3D printing, which are helping the world meet its needs for scarce and essential medical supplies. In addition to these advances in the manufacturing sector, the current global crisis also appears to be driving the adoption of autonomous vehicles and delivery robots, the ultimate form of social distancing.

Social distancing and contactless delivery

In 2016, McKinsey released an analysis on The Future of Last Mile, which predicted that 80% of the world’s parcel delivery service would be powered by autonomous vehicles by 2025. While the adoption of autonomous delivery technology has not been as fast as anticipated, it has become a critical discussion for businesses that desire to adapt their delivery service to the age of COVID-19. This is pushing the technology forward, both in terms of raw innovation and in the speed of customer and regulatory adoption.

Now with half of humanity operating in some state of lockdown, only a few essential businesses in retail and delivery service are allowed to conduct normal operations. Even for businesses who are allowed to remain open, there is still a need to maintain social distancing to prevent the Covid-19 virus from spreading further.

This provides a significant incentive for companies to leverage autonomous delivery for ‘contactless’ services. In both retail and delivery situations, they reduce the possibility of transmission, making it safer for consumers to shop and receive delivery for groceries and other essentials.


Delivery robots in the age of social distancing

As of March, the likes of Uber, Waymo, Cruise, Argo AI, and many other companies testing autonomous vehicles have halted their driverless vehicle programs, according to Venture Beat. This was a response to the current global pandemic, intended to limit contact between riders and drivers. But this has not been the case for Nuro R2, an autonomous delivery vehicle designed to transport groceries and other essentials.

In February, Nuro R2 was granted an autonomous vehicle exemption by the Department of Transportation. Regulators are demonstrating that they are willing to reduce prior regulatory hurdles for autonomous delivery vehicles because the technology enables social distancing.

For years, regulations have been one of the significant challenges facing the adoption of autonomous vehicle technology–regulatory acceptance is viewed as being as important as customer adoption in this sector

Aside from Nuro, other companies developing autonomous delivery vehicles and robots are also stepping up operations to help businesses adapt to the new environment. Starship Technologies is another such company. This robotics startup builds autonomous robot who can carry up to 20 pounds, and is looking to ramp up operations after a recent $40 million funding round. Ryan Tuohy, head of business development at Starship says demand has increased exponentially in recent weeks, due to the increased demand for contactless delivery. The company is trying to keep up with demand intending to send its autonomous robots to more cities as demands increase.


Autonomous delivery and the coronavirus response

In addition to retail, autonomous delivery has the potential to help the healthcare industry in the fight against COVID-19. UPS Flight Forward, an arm of UPS dedicated to drone delivery, recently partnered with two drone technology companies to conduct tests on the possibility of using unmanned aerial systems to support medical professionals as they support the battle to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The company, along with DroneUp and Workhorse Group, spent three days testing package delivery by drones in the vacant St. Paul’s College campus in Lawrenceville, Virginia.

Autonomous delivery, in this case, could be potentially valuable in the transport of medical supplies and samples for analysis, and may even be faster than ground transportation. UPS is sending the findings of that test to the White House in a white paper that will detail the potential of the drone technology industry to help bolster the national COVID-19 response. Neolix in China is another example.

The company says its autonomous delivery vehicles have been used in delivering medical supplies and supplementing labor shortages in many of the regions badly hit by the coronavirus. The vans, in partnership with Apollo, Baidu’s autonomous vehicle platform, have also helped to deliver food to health workers at the frontline of the coronavirus response in Beijing


Public perception and other challenges

The safety and convenience of autonomous technologies are enabling broader acceptance of the autonomous category. s. Public perception is becoming more favorable to autonomous delivery vehicles than to autonomous vehicles intended for passenger transportation.

Amit Nisenbaum, CEO of Tactile Mobility, a startup that provides tactile data and sensing technologies to help autonomous vehicles detect bumps, hazards, and curvatures, put this down to the perceived safety and convenience of autonomous delivery vehicles. As consumers and travelers become more familiar with robotics in delivery use cases, it is highly likely that this shift will also lead to increased public acceptance of driverless transportation.

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge humanity to innovate at a faster pace, there are still hurdles and challenges to surmount. For autonomous delivery, the current crisis has spurred adoption but there are still many challenges remaining is meeting increasing demand.

As demand increases,  companies will struggle to keep up production levels needed for autonomous delivery robots, vehicles, and other unmanned systems. Human capital is still much better understood, and it is easier to hire a hundred thousand employees like Amazon recently did than to build a hundred thousand delivery robots. But this is a challenge that many companies in this sector like Neolix and KiwiBot are addressing, and robotics will continue to become more mainstream.

KiwiBot‘s delivery robots, for instance, has started delivering essential products such as antibacterial gels, hand sanitizers, masks, sanitary supplies, and many other hygiene products to consumers in Denver and Berkeley. Neolix also received orders for 200 more of its autonomous delivery vehicles in the last two months, compared to 125 as of May 2019. The Chinese government is subsidizing the cost of these delivery vehicles by up to 60%. This has led to an increase in demand from e-commerce retailers that Neolix anticipates will bring sales to about 1,000 vehicles by the end of 2020.

Contactless delivery is an effective way to limit contact and maintain social distancing in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic. This need is driving more interest in autonomous delivery technology, from autonomous vehicles to delivery drones and robots. This technology is already helping the retail industry develop point-to-point delivery as well as in the delivery of essential medical supplies to mitigate the coronavirus spread. This has long been touted as the future of autonomous delivery. The current global pandemic, however, appears to be bringing that future closer.


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