Tesco’s trial of a robot delivery has grabbed headlines, but is the idea of robots delivering groceries PR spin or the future of the industry?

When Amazon first revealed it would trial drone deliveries it was initially dismissed as a PR stunt, but as the weeks progressed it became apparent Jeff Bezos was deadly serious.

It would, therefore, be foolhardy to dismiss Tesco trialling a one-hour robot delivery with Starship Technologies, the same firm that has been enabling Just Eat’s restaurant partners to make deliveries in Southwark over the past year, as an attempt to grab column inches.

However, a Tesco spokeswoman was keen to downplay the significance of the trial and described it as a “one-off” as part of its wider Tesco Now one-hour delivery initiative.

She said the robot delivery was to a single London location and Tesco has “not made a decision if we will do any more trials or roll it out”. Findings from the trial are only being shared internally.

Just Eat’s findings

The Just Eat trial is taking place primarily in the London borough of Southwark after a trial in Greenwich, and the small fleet of autonomous robots have made “hundreds” of deliveries since launching a year ago.

“All these things that feel futuristic are already being tested and retailers that do not trial technology will get bitten”

Matthew Knight, Carat

Starship also has permission to operate in Hammersmith and Fulham, Newham and Milton Keynes.

Deliveries take between 15-30 minutes for a journey of between one to two miles and each robot can hold up to three bags of shopping.

In London, all deliveries are accompanied by a human “robot handler” who helps the devices cross the road.

Neil Ashworth, chief executive of delivery firm Collect+, says the current problem with robot delivery is “no one has mapped the pavements” and therefore the robots are having to learn where drop kerbs and fire hydrants are. 

Just Eat product research senior technical manager Andy White says the company uses the delivery robots “to complement our restaurants’ operations at peak times and we are pleased to learn that other companies are now starting to adopt this innovative technology”.

Although robot deliveries have been on a very small scale to date, head of strategic innovation at media agency Carat Matthew Knight believes Tesco deserves “kudos” for the trial.

“All these things that feel futuristic are already being tested and retailers that do not trial technology will get bitten,” says Knight. “Future sounding tech comes around faster than you realise and you will never learn from a technology until you have tested it.”

Knight believes that if retailers rest on their laurels and wait for case studies to emerge then by the time they have tested the technology themselves they could be a couple of years behind rivals.

Potential pitfalls

The technology is already in place to permit robot deliveries but infrastructure and legislative hurdles are holding back its implementation, according to Knight.

“An increase in delivery vans are affecting pollution and congestion in cities and suburbs. Zero-emissions delivery robots can assist with these growing problems”

Henry Harris-Burland, Starship Technology

For instance, he believes some councils could hold back robot deliveries and he highlights the push-back the technology has received in San Francisco, and the backlash against Uber’s disruptive business model.

Robot deliveries pose further trouble for retailers because the implementation is likely to spark front page stories about staff being replaced by machines, warns Knight.

Starship Technologies vice president of marketing, Henry Harris-Burland, argues that its robots will make last-mile delivery much more efficient and cost effective, and are better for the environment.

Starship has bold plans about dramatically reducing the cost of delivery, which would provide sweet relief to retailers that are struggling with the overheads caused by customers clamouring for online delivery.

“We aim to get the cost of on-demand delivery to between £1 and £3 in the future,” says Harris-Burland. “With ecommerce growing at 10% every year, an increase in delivery vans are affecting pollution and congestion in cities and suburbs. Zero-emissions delivery robots can assist with these growing problems.”

The future of the final mile

Harris-Burland insists that robot delivery will be “commonplace in the future” and says there are at least ten companies in the world building delivery robots.

While Knight agrees the future is moving in the direction of robot deliveries, he believes that all types of autonomous vehicles are key.

Amazon drone

Amazon drone

Will changes in legislation enable further drone usage by the likes of Amazon?

Ian Fisher, the UK & Ireland chief information officer at DHL, says the increased urbanisation of cities and greater congestion will contribute to robots being a “part of the future of final-mile delivery”.

DHL has carried out a number of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) trials and believes these will also play a major role.

“It won’t be a question of whether we will have automated final-mile delivery options, but rather what form they will take,” says Fisher. “There would be many benefits to using UAVs to circumvent traffic, rather than robots on the ground.

“Ultimately it depends on how fast legislation surrounding the public use of such technology progresses.”

Ashworth predicts that despite the restrictions, robot deliveries could be a “realistic proposition within three years” and self-driving delivery vehicles could be on the roads in five years. 

“Robot deliveries are coming our way and I think there will be more land robots than drones,” he says.

The rise of the machines is on its way. Retailers would be wise to prepare for it before it is too late.

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