As Wilko unveils plans to begin autonomous home deliveries by 2023, the UK retailer joins a growing group of companies already using robots to deliver products to customers globally.

Wilko’s investment in autonomous vehicles follows a surge in deliveries to households across the UK during the pandemic.

Hermes delivered its highest-ever amount of parcels last year, while Royal Mail experienced its busiest quarter in history in the three months to December 2020, even delivering a whopping 11.7 million parcels in one day.

With demand for home delivery showing little sign of slowing, retailers are pondering how best to reach customers at a time when they are calling for both convenience and sustainability: two concepts that may once have been at odds with one another. 

With this in mind, retailers are turning towards robots due to their eco-friendly credentials and the potential to reduce costs. Retail Week examines five existing successful – and sustainable – initiatives as retailers around the world embrace a new dawn in delivery.

Manna

Manna Ireland Drone

Manna

Irish company Manna has made drone delivery a reality, finding success in an area where even tech titan Amazon has struggled. 

The drone company launched its service in Oranmore, Galway, last November with an average delivery time of only two minutes and forty seconds for groceries, medicines and takeaway.

Manna has since partnered with Just Eat and Tesco, as well as local stores in the town of 10,000 people.

Covid testing kits have also proven popular orders for the delivery service in recent months, as well as takeaway coffees that are still warm after delivery.

The drones, which are around two metres wide, travel at 60 miles an hour at an altitude of 150 to 200 feet. They can carry up to 10 pounds of cargo.

The company charges retailers a fixed subscription fee for the service and retailers themselves then set the delivery charge for each customer order.

Manna will now expand to a second, larger location in Ireland, with a population of 40,000, with future plans to bring the service to the UK and the US.

Nuro

Nuro R2 vehicle

Nuro

Nuro’s driverless vehicles are bringing on-demand delivery to customers in Houston, Texas. The US start-up’s vehicle – named R2 – has taken to public roads in the city to deliver Domino’s pizza, groceries and pharmacy essentials from CVS. 

In June, Nuro also unveiled a multi-year partnership with FedEx to complete multi-stop and appointment deliveries, an initiative that is ongoing in the Texan city.

FedEx envisions that autonomous vehicles will assist with same-day and speciality delivery devices in the future.

Founded by two former Google engineers, Nuro has also gained a foothold in California after receiving the go-ahead for the state’s first-ever commercial driverless delivery service last year.

Pilots have been completed in Phoenix, Arizona, and Mountain View, California, while last year the vehicles were used to deliver medicine and food to Covid patients and staff in San Mateo and Sacramento, according to a Nuro spokesperson. 

R2 can travel up to 35 miles per hour and uses radar, thermal imaging and cameras to assist it on its voyages. Goods are transported in temperature-controlled lockers and customers are texted an access code to retrieve their delivery at the curbside.

Nuro’s next step is rapidly increasing its fleet. It recently revealed it would spend $40m on a manufacturing facility and test track for future developments in Southern Nevada.

Doora

When Doora takes to the streets of Stockholm, the food delivery robot is impossible to miss.

The bright pink droid was introduced to the Swedish capital in March 2021 in a new venture from takeaway delivery service Foodora, owned by Delivery Hero. 

Doora can transport up to 20 kilograms of food or other products and glides along at six kilometres per hour. It has a battery life of eight hours and takes four hours to recharge.

The robot first travels directly to the restaurant the customer has ordered from to receive the food. When Doora arrives at the customer’s address they then scan it to gain access to their meal.

Foodora collaborated with telecom operator Tele2 to bring Doora to life. The robots utilises 5G technology to complete its mission by scanning its surroundings and sending real-time information instantly to Foodora.

The food delivery business plans to expand to other Swedish cities, with the long-term ambition to reach everyone in the Nordics within 30 minutes.

Foodora will also consider introducing drones to scale its autonomous delivery operations.

Starship Technologies

Robot outside co-op

Starship Technologies in Northampton 

US company Starship Technologies is one of the leaders in this space, with its robots having successfully completed 1.6 million autonomous deliveries around the world over the past seven years.

Launched in San Francisco by Skype’s co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis in 2014, the company’s fleet of more than 1,000 robots now operates in several cities, including Modesto and Moutain View in California.

Starship Technologies has partnered with both local businesses, such as regional grocery operators, and international chains, such as Starbucks and Subway.

The robots have travelled millions of miles and make more than 80,000 road crossings daily. 

The emission-free delivery service is also active in the UK. It first launched in Milton Keynes in 2018 and last year expanded to Northampton in partnership with Co-op.

Any home within a three-mile radius of stores can use the service and customers must download an app to order. The number of Starship robots will rise to 500 this year as the service expands to five new towns, including locations in Cambridgeshire. 

The most popular items delivered by the robots include the daily staples: milk, eggs and bread, as well as bananas and cucumbers. 

In the US, the robots also serve almost 20 university campuses in 15 states where the company has partnerships with on-site catering.

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Xiaomanlv

Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba will introduce 1,000 autonomous delivery robots across China this year.

The robot, called ‘Xiaomanlv’ (which translates as ‘small donkey’), will be primarily launched on college campuses, as well as within some local communities.

Built by Alibaba’s research agency Damo Academy in collaboration with the group’s logistic arm Cainiao, Xiaomanlv will primarily target students who are regular users of Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall platforms. 

The robot has become a regular feature at Chinese universities since March this year. A small fleet has recently been added to Zhejiang University in Hangzhou to prepare for the Singles’ Day shopping festival in November, during which they are expected to deliver more than 30,000 packages across the campus.

Following collection at a local courier drop-off point, Xiaomanlv can deliver around 50 packages at a time with plans for it to make 10 such trips a day. Alibaba says its electric robots can cover 100 kilometres on a single charge. 

Alibaba’s decision to roll out its robots comes as China surpassed 40 billion packages this year by June 1.

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