Drones and robots become reality as delivery options develop
Pronto is already testing the Starship delivery robot in London

Drones and robots become reality as delivery options develop


More and more people want home delivery – and they want it fast, no matter what they are buying. Could the days of a leisurely half hour wait for a motorcycle courier to bring you a pizza may be drawing to a close as robots and drones take over? 

Robots en route

Food delivery companies Pronto and Just Eat are about to start trialling deliveries by a self-driving robot. The robots have been created by Starship Technologies, the founder of which already has an impeccable record of creating ways to transform communications. Ahti Heinla, a Skype co-founder and CEO at Starship says: “Our vision revolves around three zeroes – zero cost, zero waiting time and zero environmental impact. We want to do to local deliveries what Skype did to telecommunications.” 

And the invention has struck a chord with would-be customers. “As soon as we saw the Starship delivery robot we knew this was the solution we’d been looking for in our mission to make it even easier for people to access quality, affordable food at the touch of a button,” says Natasha Lytton, chief marketing officer at Pronto.

“We’re incredibly excited to launch this test programme in London and roll it out in time across other cities as we expand our reach both in the UK and abroad. We hope to see the streets lined with thousands of these robots brining people their hot, ready-to-eat Pronto meal on-demand and providing an even more cost-effective, efficient and environment-friendly delivery solution for our customers.”

The robots are capable of carrying the equivalent of two grocery bags. It is claimed that they can complete local deliveries within five to 30 minutes from a local hub or retail outlet for 10 to 15 times less than the cost of existing deliveries. They travel at just four miles an hour, the equivalent of a brisk walking pace, and move along the pavements.

Customers can choose from a selection of short, precise delivery slots and can track the robot’s location in real time through a mobile app and on arrival only the app holder is able to unlock the cargo. Integrated navigation and obstacle avoidance software enables the robots to drive autonomously.

Robot room service

Similar technology is already in use successfully at various luxury hotels in the US where a company called Savioke has developed a Relay robot able to take orders from the front desk and deliver toiletries, linens and other items directly to guest rooms. At the Marriott Los Angeles LAX, the robot even delivers coffee from the Starbucks outlet in the lobby. During 2015, the Relay robot made more than 11,000 guest deliveries.

Heinla says: “With e-commerce continuing to grow, consumers expect to have more convenient options for delivery – but at a cost that suits them. The last few miles often amounts to the majority of the total delivery cost. Our robots are purposely designed using the technologies made affordable by mobile phones and tablets – it’s fit for purpose, and allows the cost savings to be passed on to the customer.

Robots & drones - Relay-being-loaded
Relay can bring a room-service order to hotel guest rooms

Drone deliveries

And what of delivery by drone?  This was thought to be an impossible concept less than a year ago, but Amazon now has permission to trial a small-scale pilot system offering drone deliveries within the UK under the Prime Air brand. This is a unique trial, which has not been undertaken anywhere else. According to Amazon, it was the country’s flexible regulations that made it choose to base the trials in the UK.

The UK government says that such trials will pave the way for businesses of all kinds to use this type of technology, since it will enable them to create suitable rules and regulations for a technology that could ultimately be worth billions. By 2020, the government aims to have created an environment in which drones can be worked out of an operator’s line of sight.

The Amazon trial will focus on drone delivery within 30-minute flight times. It will provide a way in which three areas of technology can be trialled: use of one operator to control multiple drones, beyond-the-line-of-sight flights, testing sensors to avoid obstacles. Existing drones can carry packages of up to 2kg, although Amazon is building versions that can carry packages of up to 3kg for a distance of 10 miles. Amazon is paying the programme’s costs, which are expected to be considerable. It believes that such costs are worthwhile as it will eventually allow small parcels to arrive at a house within 30 minutes of being ordered online. Given that most of Amazon’s deliveries are within the 3kg bracket, it offers the vision of drones gently dropping an emergency supply of fruit and vegetables ordered via Amazon Prime onto your doorstep.

Robots & drones - Starship Pronto prime-air_airborne
Pie in the sky might not be so far off after all

Turbulence ahead

However, there are still major problems involved with drone delivery particularly with regard to security and privacy. Weather conditions can also affect operation. Issues raised include the problem of drones flying low over houses and buildings and being used by terrorists.

Then there is the question of dropping zones. GPS guided drones are accurate to within one metre of a location. Consequently, they do not have the accuracy to target specific houses or gardens. Flats and houses without gardens pose another problem – where do the drones land? 

Emeritus Professor of artificial intelligence and robotics & public engagement at the University of Sheffield, Noel Sharkey, is concerned: “We need a broader societal discussion, not just the government and Amazon getting into a huddle for the sake of the economy.”

So although the dream of a drone dropping by to deliver fresh food or a restaurant meal is a fun one – it is unlikely to become the norm in the immediate future. A lot of questions have to be answered. Amazon’s trial system is expected to involve deliveries by drone to a delivery centre, from where the parcels can be collected or sent by courier for onward delivery.

But don’t rule it out in the long term. It is not just Amazon that is investigating this type of delivery system. And in Germany the Deutsche Post Group has apparently carried out trials with drones indicated its interest in exploring the opportunities they offer in the future.



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