Delivery Robots: Out of the Trash Heap of Ideas?

Will delivery robots, designed to travel on sidewalks, gain traction or will they ultimately end up in the trash heap of ideas?

I asked that question back in March 2019, soon after FedEx introduced its FedEx SameDay Bot. That was back in pre-pandemic days, which seems like a lifetime ago.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic improved the value proposition of delivery robots?

According to Wired, “Amazon and FedEx [have] seeded and backed [legislation] permitting delivery robots in more than a dozen states this year. At least six have become law.” Here’s more from the article:

Both Amazon and FedEx are developing delivery robots. FedEx’s bot, which is called Roxo and looks like a small refrigerator, has completed on-road tests in four cities. Scout, built to deliver Prime packages, also is testing in four cities. The companies present similar visions: A delivery van full of robots would arrive in a neighborhood, and robots would travel the “last mile” to customers’ doorsteps without human aid.

The bots aren’t quite there yet. In a blog posted last month, Amazon said it is testing a small number of devices during weekday daylight hours, for now with a person (“an Amazon Scout Ambassador”) present. FedEx CEO Fred Smith wrote in a letter to shareholders this month that Roxo is preparing for a second round of tests. “We’ll come out of this pandemic with a greater understanding of how FedEx can benefit customers—and society—through these devices,” he wrote.

The article highlights the many legal and technological challenges that remain. In one case, for example, a deaf-blind woman “was surprised this summer when she encountered a delivery robot operated by the company Starship Technologies on a sidewalk in Mountain View, California, and the robot didn’t maneuver around her and her guide dog, Mylo.”

Will we turn the corner with Covid before delivery robots turn the corner in your neighborhood? I hope so. That said, the pandemic has certainly changed the value proposition of delivery robots. There is now a health and safety component to them that didn’t exist just six months ago. Delivery robots may still end up in the trash heap of ideas, but revisiting their potential in light of the pandemic — as another solution to the sharp rise in e-commerce sales and the health and safety concerns of delivery drivers and consumers — is worthwhile, nonetheless.

What do you think? Post a comment and share your perspective!

P.S. Robots in the warehouse, however, is a different story. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Jennifer Smith writes, “Upheaval from the coronavirus pandemic is pushing more companies to consider automating distribution and fulfillment, as the consumer rush to online shopping and social distancing practices within warehouse operations add to the challenges in strained logistics networks. Although fulfillment operations still rely largely on human labor, companies have been incorporating more technology in recent years as they seek to boost output and handle swings in demand more efficiently. Covid-19 is accelerating that shift.” 

It is also accelerating investments in robotics firms. Last week, for example, XYZ Robotics announced that it raised $17 million for its pick-and-place logistics robots.