A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Apr 27, 2020

Robots and Drones Increasingly Become Important For Contactless Delivery

Companies which, six months ago, were written off as a niche ahead of their time are now scrambling to catch up with skyrocketing demand. JL

Christopher Mims reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Robots are quickly becoming an important part of health-care supply chains, (though) most are helping by allowing “contactless” delivery of groceries and other essentials. These efforts range from pilot programs to large-scale operations, with hundreds of delivery robots traveling on roads or in the air, collectively covering thousands of miles. “Before Covid, the driver for automation was mostly [reducing] cost of delivery. Now it’s about capacity.”
Earlier this week, a pair of sleek, four-wheeled robots began trundling across the cracked pavement outside the Sleep Train Arena, the defunct former home of the Sacramento Kings, which the state of California has turned into a field Covid-19 hospital.
The robots, dubbed R2, were supposed to be delivering groceries to residents of a wealthy neighborhood in Houston, part of a rollout by the Mountain View, Calif.-based startup Nuro. Instead, like other robots the world over, they have been pressed into service delivering goods and medical supplies as a way to help prevent transmission of the deadly coronavirus.
In Sacramento, Nuro’s robots are shuttling food, fresh linens and personal protective equipment between a nearby supply depot and the field hospital, allowing support workers to remain physically distanced from patients and hospital staff.
Some variation of this process, a sort of unexpected wartime mobilization, is happening in cities including Tel Aviv; Hangzhou, China; Washington, D.C.; and Grand Forks, N.D. These efforts range from pilot programs to large-scale operations, with hundreds of delivery robots traveling on roads or in the air, collectively covering thousands of miles.
While some of these robots are quickly becoming an important part of health-care supply chains, most are helping simply by allowing “contactless” delivery of groceries and other essentials.
The arrival of robot delivery had already seemed a foregone conclusion, at least in places where it made sense. But the pandemic has turned businesses, governments and consumers from cautious beta testers into eager early adopters. Yet what should be a windfall for startups may have arrived too early—before they are able to ramp up manufacturing of their delivery robots, and ahead of approvals by national and regional governments that determine where and how robots can be deployed.
“Before Covid, the driver for automation was mostly around [reducing] cost of delivery,” says Anthony Townsend, an urban-tech consultant and author of the forthcoming “Ghost Road,” about the future of autonomous vehicles. “Now it’s about capacity.”
For companies like Flytrex, an Israeli autonomous-drone delivery startup, the pandemic means less regulatory red tape, historically the biggest barrier to use of the technology, says Chief Executive Yariv Bash.
On Friday, Flytrex launched a pilot of its autonomous-drone delivery service in Grand Forks, delivering goods ordered from a Walmart Supercenter to a handful of backyards nearby. (Walmart is not a partner; Flytrex buys goods directly from the store.) In the coming months, the company plans to expand the service to the drone’s full flight radius of 3 miles, enabling delivery of packages up to 6.5 pounds to hundreds of homes.
Flytrex has been a part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s trials of drone delivery for the past two years, inching its way toward approval of its custom-made delivery drones. While coronavirus has delayed the final field tests of its drones, which were to take place in North Carolina, other aspects of the approval process have sped up.
“I think [FAA regulators] are actually working harder from home. They’re always on Zoom,” says Mr. Bash. “Since Covid-19 started we have three, four, sometimes even five calls per week with them, where before it was only maybe one a week.”
An FAA spokesman called the recognition of its employees’ dedication “heartening and humbling.”
Starship Technologies has been delivering groceries in the British town of Milton Keynes since late 2018. Its terrier-size, six-wheel robots operate 14 hours a day, traveling on sidewalks. The company had been able to reach approximately 100,000 people in Milton Keynes. In response to the pandemic, delivery has expanded to 180,000 people, says Starship CEO Lex Bayer.
Like every other delivery service the world over, robotic or otherwise, Starship has seen demand explode.
“I haven’t been out the front door of my house for nearly seven weeks,” says PJ Jarvis, a resident of Milton Keynes whose wife donated a kidney to him 18 months ago, putting him among those most vulnerable to the coronavirus. “To be able to have these robots whenever you need is a godsend.”
Mr. Bayer plans to double the town’s fleet of 50 delivery robots soon, which will expand capacity from hundreds of deliveries a day to thousands. Globally, Starship has completed more than 100,000 deliveries and its robots have traveled over 500,000 miles, says a spokesman.
In the U.S., Starship has focused on delivery on college campuses where sidewalks are robot-friendly and—at least before nationwide stay-at-home orders—demand from students was high and nearby food options plentiful. In Fairfax, Va., George Mason University has closed down normal operations but decided not to send home graduate students and study-abroad undergraduates. Starship is continuing to deliver with more than 25 robots seven days a week. Students can order from Starbucks, Wing Zone and a local grocery store.
In response to the pandemic, the company also recently expanded delivery outside the campus and to the surrounding town.
For Nuro, maker of the R2 robots now operating in Sacramento, the coronavirus has meant both increased demand and shifted priorities. The company continues to operate its autonomous delivery service in Houston, and has seen orders nearly double since the first week of shelter in place and now. Those deliveries aren’t made by the little robots, but by modified Toyota Priuses with safety drivers at the wheel; for the consumer it’s little different than a delivery from Postmates or Instacart.
Nuro had planned to roll out the fully autonomous R2 in Texas by now, says Dave Ferguson, co-founder and president. The robot is limited to a top speed of 35 miles an hour and can only travel on surface roads, not highways. But once the pandemic hit, he says, the company refocused on “how we could redeploy the R2 for Covid efforts.”
As of Wednesday, R2 robots are now in use at a second field hospital in California. This one was set up by the county of San Mateo, south of San Francisco, and the robots are transporting food between an off-site kitchen and housing for patients in quarantine.
In China, drone-delivery firm Antwork Technology has been ferrying food from Starbucks and KFC in its home province of Zhejiang in a pilot program for the past two years, says Leon Zhao, the company’s chief operating officer. When the coronavirus hit the province, the company pivoted to making deliveries for hospitals, and became a critical part of the local testing and quarantine infrastructure.
At one hospital in Hangzhou, Antwork’s drones flew test samples to a larger hospital nearby to expedite testing. Now that the coronavirus threat has lessened in the region, Antwork has continued medical deliveries along seven new routes.
Since February, when the program launched, Antwork’s drones have completed 450 trips, and traveled more than 2,100 miles without an accident.
Having prepared for a much slower rollout, all of these companies are now scrambling to accelerate timetables on everything from building their robots to certifying their safety. Flytrex, for example, can’t conduct critical drone field tests because of stay-at-home orders, says Mr. Bash.
Nuro, which recently received approval from both the federal government for the design of its R2 delivery robot and from the state of California for its autonomous operation on roads, has limited capacity to produce them. “We don’t have the ability to scale overnight,” says Mr. Ferguson.
Until there’s a reserve of robots comparable to the reserve of humans that can be called upon by Amazon and Instacart at times of great need, robot delivery can only have a limited role in response to pandemic-scale crises, especially with the high costs of maintaining extra capacity.
It is more likely that robots will gradually supplement the human labor force as demand for delivery expands. Before the pandemic, about 3% of U.S. grocery spending happened online, according to a survey published in February 2019 by Bain & Co. That percentage will rise dramatically, even if only some of those who have since adopted it continue to use it.
That also means that delivery robots aren’t likely to take anybody’s job soon. “What we’ll be replacing is not a delivery driver, but you driving to the store yourself,” says Nuro’s Mr. Ferguson. Plus, even “fully automated” systems require human labor, from maintenance to remote assistance.
Even the heads of these companies acknowledge that their technology can only ever be part of the solution. And studies of the economics and energy consumption of truck delivery show that it’s almost impossible to beat delivering certain types of goods the old-fashioned way, when it’s done right.
Nevertheless, the coronavirus pandemic has brought into focus the suitability of robots for fast, short-distance delivery from local businesses, and in other contexts where time—and safety—is of the essence, such as health care.

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