Ursula O’Sullivan-Dale takes a closer look at one of the major emerging trends in urban logistics: the last-mile delivery robot…
Due to increasing levels of scrutiny around the sustainability of supply chains, urban logistics providers are looking to remodel their operations to meet both consumer demand and accountability standards. However, an e-commerce boom in recent years means these ambitions can often conflict with one another, and the need to stay competitive in a rapid delivery marketplace. This has created opportunities for those developing innovative new technologies that can help balance differing business needs.
Enter last-mile delivery robots – which often run autonomously and on electricity, representing a viable alternative to road transport traditionally used for last-mile deliveries. Across the UK, these bots have been making headlines as more and more towns and cities are looking to switch up how urban logistics operations are conducted. One bot even made national news for its polite behaviour after thanking someone who helped rescue it from being stuck in the snow.
Just some of the places these and similar robots have been deployed are: Cambridge, through a partnership between robotics company Starship Technologies, food retailer Co-op and Cambridgeshire County Council; in Milton Keynes with its council and operator Cartken; and on an RAF base supported by Kar-go, an autonomous delivery off-shoot of parent company Academy of Robotics. Schemes like these, especially when they operate within public or residential areas, are the result of rigorous regulatory preparation and planning behind the scenes; but what is really needed to start rolling out robots to complete door-to-door deliveries – and is the investment worth it?
Leading the way
In supply-chain planning, the last mile represents the crucial final stage when goods are delivered to the customer, usually from a local distribution warehouse or hub. When robots are introduced in lieu of human delivery drivers, it is critical to first consider the safety of the robots operating in a space where they could interact with the public. Tim Jones, director of marketing, communications and sustainability at parcel courier DPD UK explains that, when initiating a programme such as the use of autonomous robots to deliver parcels in Milton Keynes, it is crucial that all parties “engage with the local authorities and get assurance to prove that robots are safe and demonstrate [all the needed] safety features…we can’t just have people launching last-mile robots all over the place. It needs to be done in conjunction with local authorities, and we welcomed the engagement once we understood the requirements we were able to meet and could begin operating.”
Speaking to CiTTi Magazine, councillor Alex Beckett from Cambridgeshire County Council adds that Cambridge was appreciative of the fact that the Milton Keynes trial had come before, especially when it came to the question of safely establishing the scheme in a new area. He says, “we were quite lucky that we weren’t the first people to do this. You look at Milton Keynes and they had done it before us and safety was a top priority”. Collaborating with operator Starship was useful for this, Beckett explains, as the council “had to prove out the safety of [the bots] before [it] initially deployed them”. The local authority “had quite a lot of questions from people about how that would work” in conjunction with other road and pavement users, surrounding things like interacting with dogs and vehicles. He adds that “Starship were really good and actually brought a lot of robots around to engage with the British Horse Society” and other community groups, which was a key part of getting them and other local stakeholders on board. What’s more, the compact size of conventional last-mile delivery robots means they require limited street space for parking. From an urban planning point of view, this was helpful in areas like Cambourne and Cherry Hinton as it allowed involved parties “to understand” some of the benefits of using robots rather than cars or vans, which occupy much more space.
Working with partners like DPD or Co-op, whose staff were responsible for loading the robots for departure in Cambridge, was central to ensuring the entire workflow involved with the robot last-mile deliveries ran effectively. Scarlett Rhodes, senior online manager, last mile and customer, Co-op, reflects on why it’s important to understand the needs of the customer when preparing for a project like this. She says, “huge investment has been made into the autonomous delivery industry by investors…so I think we’re likely to see autonomous delivery become more of the ‘norm’ on a global scale. The rapid delivery market continues to expand and customers are wanting their products faster and faster. Since launching, we’ve also seen how our vulnerable customers in rural areas really depend on a reliable delivery service and we believe this is a space where robots will be a key player.” By offering alternative logistics models that suit a range of customer demographics, autonomous robots can help some retailers better connect with the needs of their customers.
Once the robots were given the green light to start delivering groceries, they were quick to get to work. Rhodes was impressed with the bots’ intelligence, explaining that they can learn more about a communities’ layout and geography with every journey, meaning “they become more and more efficient at finding routes from stores to customers as they get to know a neighbourhood”. She continues that, after spending the day building a dataset of key information about where and how deliveries can be conducted that, overnight, the robots are able to share knowledge with one another and drive continuous improvements across the network.
Running a small robot, which requires a limited amount of electricity to reach a full charge in comparison with an electric car, is both a financial and sustainability win for companies looking to reach their environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) targets. Jones from DPD expands on why the company chose to work with Cartken to bring autonomous robots into the fold of its Milton Keynes operation. He says, “one of the key reasons we wanted to get into autonomous robots” is that the company is moving towards electrifying its standard van fleet, thus “one of [their] big attractions is that they are all-electric, [meaning] using them in residential areas takes out a diesel van from that road or housing area.” In turn, this means that, as well as a novel user experience (UX) for those interacting with bots, members of the public also benefit from a reduction in the congestion, noise pollution and air quality impacts associated with both polluting and non-polluting road transport.
Delivered with a smile
Developing a user interface and ensuring interactions with the public were positive was a massively important factor in the success of the robot delivery schemes in Cambridge. The ‘S’ in ESG is not to be overlooked and, building on the community impact of the Cambridge bots, Beckett comments that having a robot come to deliver a parcel is an activity for a child or a family. He continues that they’ve “gone down really, really well and obviously cut down a lot of deliveries….[we even] had reindeers on them at Christmas and Halloween ones. It’s just all those little things that work so well” when trying to integrate the robots effectively into community life. Rhodes adds that “it’s been great to see the joy it has brought to the community – they are hugely popular and we receive a whole host of feedback” about positive interactions customers have had.
Academy of Robotics co-founder and CEO William Sachiti concurs, adding that, outside of the positive interactions the public are having with the bots themselves, social benefits can be drawn from “[improved] access to essential products or services [and that] using robots to bring products and services to people with mobility issues could relieve pressure on social care resources, for instance”. He adds that, as well as last-mile deliveries, “there are also [other] life and death situations that save cost, time and improve human life: automating logistics tasks within a hospital for instance could both improve jobs and patient care” representing the saving of essential resources for some organisations to deploy elsewhere.
While national papers have helped spread the word about last-mile delivery bots in places like Milton Keynes and Cambridge, not all of the operators in this space are building small, box-like robots designed to roll along the pavement. One very distinctive example is that of Kar-go, borne out of Academy of Robotics (AOR), a UK-based artificial intelligence (AI) tech company, which was established to build technology that can automate repetitive tasks and logistics processes. Sachiti discusses the rise of automated last-mile deliveries with CiTTi Magazine, delving into the process behind some of the company’s recent use cases.
In September 2021, the company collaborated with the Royal Air Force (RAF) to pilot the use of Kar-go autonomous delivery vehicles at the UK’s largest airbase, RAF Brize Norton. When working with the RAF, AOR developed a bespoke system which minimised data capture based on the security requirements of operating at the site. Sachiti envisions this level of customisation for many of the company’s last-mile customers in the future, saying that he “doesn’t believe in maximising profits by standardising everything to a point where we don’t really solve the problem in its entirety for anybody. While standardisation works to solve the biggest problem felt by the highest number of people, I think tech on earth has become advanced enough to go completely bespoke for large organisations and solve the logistics problem completely”.
The versatility of the technology used for the last-mile delivery programme was recently adapted to support logistics within a hospital in Milton Keynes. These “Helper Bots are run primarily by the same hardware and software which powers [the] self-driving vehicles but the solution is completely customised for a medical in-hospital use case”, he adds. The transfer of knowledge resulting from the use of more sophisticated last-mile technology means knowledge transfer can offer added value to companies thinking of investing.
Introducing a fleet of delivery robots can help companies to cut the costs associated with typical last-mile deliveries dramatically. Research from Capgemini reveals that last-mile delivery costs can represent as much as 41% of overall costs across the supply chain, but that satisfied consumers and younger customers might be willing to absorb some of these costs, especially if this means they can offset some of the delivery’s environmental impact. One way to do this is to introduce environmentally conscious shipping modes, such as robots run on electricity. What’s more, American investment management firm ARK Invest estimates that pavement robots could deliver food orders for as little as 6 cents per mile, which costs 20 times less than having a person deliver a package. Introducing a fleet of last-mile robots, through representing an initial investment, can therefore lead to long-term declines in operating, refuelling, maintenance and other supply-chain costs for businesses. The issue of “automating last-mile logistics certainly offers cost benefits”, Sachiti continues, but the lessons learned from using robotics for last-mile logistics can also be applied elsewhere, as seen with shared learning across different Kar-go projects or the continuous improvement in how the bots service customers seen in Cambridge. This expertise can be valuable in and of itself for firms looking to better understand the needs of their customers in a rapidly evolving marketplace for logistics and e-commerce services.
The last mile of the supply chain is constantly changing, based on the need for it to suit customer-specific expectations. As such demands grow and shift in nature, automation is becoming more commonplace across the processes of creating, shipping and distributing the goods on which many people rely. Knowing this, it seems logical that firms are trialling out how this final step in the process can also be improved through the implementation of robotics. In fact, DPD, which is one of the UK’s largest parcel delivery companies, is looking to take things even further by investigating how it can automate the manual loading of the bots, so this can also be done autonomously. Jones adds that the company is in conversation with several authorities “up and down [the country]…and increasingly we’re seeing acceptance of this” way of managing the last mile, both in cities and rural areas. To him, the robots are here to stay, and that people are beginning to see that “this will be a fact of life in the future”.
Drones are one variant of last-mile robot that have been garnering international attention for years. In the UK specifically, during the past twelve months, post and parcel service Royal Mail has been trialling drones to expand its services to remote communities and islands throughout its operating area. Recent trials were conducted in Orkney [July] and the Shetland Islands [April] in Scotland, which were intended to streamline the delivery processes across these harder-to-reach communities and improve delivery times. Residents have traditionally relied on ferries to receive goods, which are subject to weather conditions, require safe docking and can be affected by poor service management.
In Orkney, Royal Mail partnered with Skyports, a British provider and operator of electrical vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) drones for cargo delivery. These fully electric aircraft delivered post between three islands. Previously, Orkney’s geography and weather conditions have caused issues for Royal Mail in its attempts to establish an uninterrupted delivery operation in the area. However, eVTOL aircraft are useful for a range of delivery types as they require no runway to take off and land. Chris Paxton, head of drone trials at Royal Mail, said: “We are proud to be working with Skyports to deliver via drone to some of the more remote communities that we serve in the UK. Using a fully-electric drone supports Royal Mail’s continued drive to reduce emissions associated with our operations, whilst connecting the island communities we deliver to.”
In Shetland, drones delivered post for Royal Mail by completing a 41-mile flight each way between Tingwall Airport in Lerwick to Unst, which is Britain’s most northerly inhabited island. The mail delivery company hopes that, in the next three years, it will be able to deploy 200 drones to transport mail on 50 new routes across the UK. Some of the first communities it expects to benefit are the Isles of Scilly, Shetland Islands, Orkney Islands and the Hebrides.
This feature was originally published in print in the November 2023 issue of Robotics & Automation.