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Are Robot Delivery Services A Gimmick?

Investigating robot delivery services and their uses

12Jan

In most science fiction worlds, delivery systems have been completely streamlined by robots, so it's easy to see why people eagerly await this becoming a reality. But it's no longer some near-future fantasy. Delivery robots have been plastered all over the news as many major retail and logistics companies are beginning to implement drone delivery systems to tackle the problem of 'last mile' deliveries.

The first official drone delivery took place in November 2016, when Domino's used a Flirtey drone to deliver pizza to a customer in Whangaparaoa, New Zealand (the very first robot delivery was a Peri-Peri chicken pizza and a chicken & cranberry pizza, by the way). After announcing they were going to begin Prime Air drone deliveries back in 2013, retail giant Amazon completed its first successful Prime Air delivery in the UK in December 2017, delivering a bag of popcorn and a TV streaming stick into the garden of a nearby customer. The first US drone delivery shortly followed in March 2017. Amazon now prepares to have a total of 40 aircraft operating the drone-based delivery system by the end of 2018, ambitiously planning that this development will allow them to deliver customers' orders within 30 minutes. Despite the technology booming and rife with potential, air delivery by drone has mostly been put on the backbench. Federal Aviation Administration regulations and concern over public safety mean that delivery drones cannot be flown over urban areas, so only delivery to rural addresses are feasible for the time being.

However, land-based robot delivery systems have shown real promise. On March 23, 2017, bots from Starship Technologies began to take over some of the work done by human couriers at the on-demand delivery startup DoorDash. The self-driving robots transport food from restaurants in Redwood City, California, to customers within a two-mile radius. An algorithm decides in real time if the delivery better fits a human courier or a robot. If the journey will take place on wide sidewalks and within a two-mile radius, delivery from a robot makes more sense. Each of Starship's delivery robots weighs 40lb and can transport up to 22lb, traveling at around 4mph. Sensors on the robot allow them to navigate around streets, building work and people also using the sidewalk. Upon arrival, the robots notify the customer of the delivery via an app. The app then displays a button the user presses to unlock the lid. The food inside is unable to be accessed by anyone but the customer and the robots contain tracking devices in case of robbery, and currently, robots have human chaperones to ensure their protection and answer questions. Starship Technologies report that there have been no issues damage to the to date robots, but they have stirred up a lot of interest on the streets, with pedestrians mostly just keen to take selfies with these unusual-looking couriers.

Despite heralding an exciting step into the future of last-mile deliveries, these bots have faced criticism for being simply 'gimmicks' to generate free hype and media attention for the brands. Many people also doubt drones' capacity to affordably and practically deliver anything, an article in the Observer branding Amazon's plan 'unrealistic'. However, in an interview with the Australian Financial Review, Domino's Pizza Enterprises chief Don Meij dismissed these claims. 'In the retail business the more you can give value with products, with service, and with image, the more you're able to get in price,' he stated. 'As we develop our model from the analog world to the digital world … if we can continue to innovate in the eyes of the customer, innovate on price, service and image … it means we can get more for our products.' Clearly, organizations investing huge amounts of money into the development of robot delivery systems believe that, in the long run, they will lower transport costs considerably. Early projections add up, as a 2015 study by ARK Investing Group predicted that drone delivery would cost Amazon less than $1 per shipment, while Business Insider estimated that Amazon spent approximately $5.75 on shipping per package in 2016. Although the media traction robot couriers attract rolling through the streets or taking flight can't be bad for business.

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