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EDITORIAL Is it the end of the road for delivery robots?

Shutterstock|Bill Nino on Unsplash

The ecommerce boom has resulted in retailers and carriers trying some innovative ways to ensure delivery is efficient and green. While some have switched to electric vehicles, others to pedal power and some even taken to the skies with delivery drones, a select few have put their products – and their faith – in self-driving delivery robots.

These sophisticated boxes on wheels are able to navigate pedestrians, cyclists and obstacles. They are designed to deliver parcels, food and essential items in a locked and secure container, all in a timely fashion.

Towns and cities across the world have seen them trialled, but this month an ecommerce giant and a delivery specialist have put the brakes on.

Amazon is stopping live trials of its automated delivery robot ‘Scout’, stating that the programme did not completely meet its customers’ needs. Meanwhile, FedEx is eliminating Roxo, the same day delivery bot, as part of an internal organisational programme.

Is this the end of the road for driverless delivery robots?

DeliveryX reached out to Starship Technologies, a leading developer of delivery robots, for comment. A spokesperson said: “Starship Technologies remains committed to bringing the benefits of robotic delivery to local neighbourhoods and university campuses. We recently announced a new collaboration with Grubhub to provide robot delivery services on multiple college campuses across the United States.

“The service will be available to more than 170,000 students in the US at many more college campuses later this year. The new campuses will join the list of over 25 schools across the United States where Starship’s robots already provide deliveries.”

In the UK, the autonomous delivery robot supplier has recently expanded its partnership with convenience grocery Co-op. Stores in Wellingborough, Higham Ferrers and Rushden in Northamptonshire will act as micro-distribution hubs with products delivered store to door in an hour or less.

The robots had already rolled out across local communities in Milton Keynes, Cambourne, and Cambridgeshire, with further expansion expected.

Starship added: “Our global fleet of robots is over 2,000 strong, and we expect to hit the milestone of four million commercial deliveries later this month – more than any other autonomous delivery provider.

“Perhaps most importantly, the feedback we continue to receive from students, families, residents, and all users of our service is extremely positive. The robots are widely welcomed onto campuses and into local neighbourhoods, and quickly become integrated as part of the community.

“Children, teenagers, students, and even parents and grandparents often go to greet the robot when it arrives with a delivery, draw pictures of them, put thank you notes inside them, and take selfies with them!

“Of course, this hasn’t happened by chance. We’ve applied various learnings over the years to try and ensure that the service continues to benefit as many people as possible and that our robots are seen as an important part of the environments they operate in.

“This is one of the main reasons why Starship has been able to operate a global, fully commercial, and profitable service for the past few years while many other companies have been stuck in pilot mode.”

There are of course other providers rolling out their delivery bots. Peyk, a London-based peer-to-peer delivery start-up, has begun trialling autonomous robot deliveries on the streets of Qatar. Toronto-based Tiny Mile is testing a robotic coffee delivery service in the US, and Pizza Hut Canada has partnered with Serve Robotics for sustainable fast food delivery.

Amazon and FedEx halting their delivery bot roll out could simply be due to both these businesses having a number of revenue streams and programmes to focus on in these uncertain economic times. If delivery robots are going to become a common sight on the streets it will be due to the dedicated technology providers championing their roll out.

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