Why the future of package delivery is better than drones

A drone alone can't make 'last-mile' home delivery scale. But robots can. Here's how.

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The robot is already being tested in Germany, San Francisco, London, Switzerland and elsewhere.

Starship delivery robots use nine cameras and GPS technology, as well as an internal navigation and mapping system, to get around on their own.

The robots deliver packages within three hours of an order being placed -- sometimes as quickly as 30 minutes afterward -- using public sidewalks, not streets, according to the company.

The process is a little like using Uber to hail a ride. People use an app to place the order. They can then track the robot on a map as it makes its delivery.

The package is locked in the robot, and a code supplied through the app enables users to unlock it to open the lid and get their packages.

Starship is also partnering with Mercedes on a concept called the Robovan, where special-purpose Mercedes vans serve as a "mothership" for up to eight Starship delivery robots. The van pulls over, and the Starship robots deliver the food or packages to multiple houses up to two miles away.

While the Starship robot is designed for delivering anything small enough to fit in its tiny cargo bay, Domino’s is testing a similar concept just for pizza in New Zealand. (And, no, I'm not talking about the Domino's April Fool's prank delivery robot.)

The robot is called Domino's Robotic Unit, or DRU, and is controlled by autonomous robot software developed by Marathon, an Australian military contractor. It can drive autonomously, avoiding obstacles, and carry both pizza and beverages up to 12 miles. A code provided to the customer unlocks the pizza compartment.

The self-driving, ice-chest approach to robotic delivery is also showing up in hotels. A startup called Savioke makes a robot called the Relay that brings things like towels and coffee to hotel rooms. Savioke already has 12 robots in operation in the U.S.

The Relay controls the elevator wirelessly and navigates through the hotel using Wi-Fi and 3D cameras. When it arrives at the guest's room, the robot uses the phone system to call the guest. When the Relay detects the door opening, it opens its own lid so the guest can grab whatever's in there.

After making a delivery, it finds its own charger in the lobby and charges itself.

In addition to these initiatives, a range of Silicon Valley startups are working on self-driving, ice-chest-like delivery systems. The companies include Fetch Robotics, Marble, Dispatch Robotics and Robby Technologies. In China, e-commerce giants Alibaba and JD.com are also working on robot delivery systems.

Cheap, light and safe, autonomous self-driving ice-chest-type robots truly do scale. They can carry more, operate more safely and require less battery power than drones.

The mobile kitchen idea

Everybody loves pizza, and many pizza restaurants deliver. The trouble is that the meat-lover's super pie with everything might be a soggy, lukewarm mess by the time it gets to your house.

One Silicon Valley pizza joint is trying to disrupt the soggy pizza industry by turning its delivery trucks into high-tech ovens that bake your pizza en route.

Zume Pizza is based in Mountain View, Calif., the same Silicon Valley town that's home to Google -- and, yes, Googlers are customers. Zume Pizza is best known for sensational headlines that claim robots make the pizza, but the reality is that Zume uses industrial robots to spread the sauce and slide the pies into the oven (where they are partially baked).

The Zume Pizza truck has 56 ovens inside that fire up individually to 800 degrees four minutes prior to the software-estimated time of delivery, so pizzas are right-out-of-the-oven hot when they arrive at the customer's house.

The company also claims that it uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to guess what pizzas customers will order, then preloads those pizzas into the trucks. When customers order, they can have their pizzas in as little as five minutes.

Zume claims two more trucks are coming soon and that the company will expand in the Bay Area before going national and international later.

Zume Pizza is only partially high-tech. Humans make the crust using a mechanical dough press, add the toppings, load and drive the truck, slice the pizza and carry it to the door. Zume is looking to eventually automate all that as well.

The genius behind Zume Pizza is that the process of auto-cooking pizzas in the trucks makes it possible to deliver up to 56 piping-hot pizzas per trip, rather than just a few warm soggy ones.

It looks like we're on the brink of making automated and robotic home delivery scale. That will improve customer satisfaction, bring down costs and probably improve safety and the environmental impact of delivery as well.

The future of delivery isn't drones. It's robots. And it's coming soon to a door near you!

This story, "Why the future of package delivery is better than drones" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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