Autonomous Robots Promise Economic Delivery Options

Analyst Insight: The decades-old practice of a delivery truck dropping off a package at a home or business occurs millions of times daily across the globe. But new ways to cover last-mile delivery – such as drones, self-navigating parcel robots and underground vehicles/tunnels – are providing a glimpse into what tomorrow’s last-mile delivery options might look like. Here are three technologies that carry the potential to transform the local delivery of direct-to-consumer orders. – John Johnson, senior content specialist, Gartner

Autonomous Robots Promise Economic Delivery Options

In early 2016, Starship Technologies, a company launched by the co-founders of Skype, started testing self-driving delivery robots in the U.K. The company planned to start delivery pilots in late 2016. The six-wheeled intelligent robot is designed for local delivery of goods and groceries for consumers for under $1 per shipment. The robots move at slow speeds on paved sidewalks. The early demonstrations of the robots are intended to show how the robots can be integrated into human life.

The robots represent a new class of devices that could provide a combination of low cost and convenience with less congested streets and zero emissions. Consumers can track the progress of the machines through an app and unlock them to retrieve their package when it arrives via a password sent to their mobile device. Because they are autonomous, lightweight and low-cost, the devices could shave huge costs off each shipment.

Momentum Grows for Drones as Last-Mile Option

By 2030, Gartner expects that 50 percent of logistics organizations will exploit drones as part of their operations. Drones carrying freight payloads with short delivery cycles could significantly reduce traditional overnight transportation charges, speed up transit times and enable cost-effective delivery to remote, sparsely populated locations.

Much has been made about Amazon’s highly publicized drone research and its commitment to make drone deliveries as soon as regulations are finalized by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A small start-up, however, made drone history in early 2016 when it completed the first fully autonomous, FAA-approved urban drone delivery in the U.S. Drone developer Flirtey delivered a package that included bottled water, emergency food and a first-aid kit to an uninhabited address in Hawthorne, Nevada.

Will Package Delivery Go Underground?

While robot solutions are designed to commingle with pedestrians on sidewalks, researchers from MIT are examining the viability of underground networks of small, autonomous vehicles to deliver goods to businesses in crowded urban centers. In March 2016, the group demonstrated a prototype of its autonomous three-wheeled vehicle at MIT’s supply-chain and logistics conference.

A prototype has been piloted on the MIT campus, and plans call for testing the concept in Taiwan and Andorra. The underground routes would connect to distribution centers across a city, or other smaller depots and customer pickup centers, such as package lockers. The vehicles would be able to deliver goods to restaurants, shops and other small businesses throughout the city without contributing to traffic congestion.

Although the concept is still a science project at MIT, an underground transport system is already planned in Switzerland that would connect a 40-mile stretch between Solothurn and Bern to Zurich by 2030 at a cost of $3.4bn.

The Outlook

Keep in mind that despite the fast pace of technology innovation, some of these solutions may be years away, could be leapfrogged by other solutions or technologies, or may not pan out at all. Then again, you might be greeted by a delivery robot at your front door sooner than you think.


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