Expert opinions, TECHNOLOGY

Robots work as couriers

Vacancies in courier services in Russia rose by 5.2 times this year. Yet another lock-down, just as expected, fueled the growth of this segment. And this fact forced many large companies to search for new logistics solutions based on robotics. According to Kenneth Lindgren, Managing Director of KONE Russia, the introduction of robotic couriers will not only help businesses save money, but will also promote barrier-free urban environments.

What are the benefits for businesses?

Robotic delivery significantly reduces the cost of last-mile delivery for companies. According to AGV Network, robotic delivery can be 15 times cheaper than the traditional one. Robots save money and do not take a sick leave. Analysts are confident in the bright future of robotic delivery thanks to the growing investment attractiveness of this segment. According to IDTechEx, the global market for mobile robots, drones and autonomous delivery/warehousing devices will reach $290 billion by 2040.

Pandemic effects

The ongoing pandemic has dramatically changed our lives along with our social and behavioral habits. Switching to remote work ceased the need for visiting crowded places and many in-person meetings. According to Delivery Club’s study, the number of delivery orders in Moscow increased by 50 % in Q1 2021 compared to Q1 2020. This indicator also grew by 44 % in other Russian cities with a population over one million and almost doubled in smaller cities.

Therefore, corporate costs for courier services have also risen. First of all, the need for couriers has dramatically increased: SuperJob revealed that courier vacancies grew by 15 % in Moscow and by 1.2 times in Saint Petersburg this year. The average monthly salary of a courier ranges from 34.500 to 80.000 rubles.

Similar trends are observed all over the world. At the same time, McKinsey’s research showed that courier delivery, or last-mile delivery, is the most expensive link in the logistics chain. This stage accounts for more than 50 % of the transportation costs.

Robotic couriers

The use of robotic couriers would be a fine solution to the problem. Thanks to the fast growth of IT systems, artificial intelligence and machine learning, it is possible to create a device that would replace a typical courier with a square thermal backpack. Such a trend for robotic delivery began in the United States. Many US retailers and courier services are very interested in the R2 startup project being developed by Nuro, where the delivery robot looks like a small vehicle. These R2 robots are already adopted by Kroger and Walmart supermarket chains, FedEx delivery service and Chipotle fast-food chain.

Amazon, CVS Pharmacy, Domino’s Pizza and the Chinese online retailer are also actively deploying robotic solutions. These companies have chosen a smaller robotic assistant. At the same time, Russian companies are deploying the Yandex.Rover courier. At the end of 2020, Yandex robots began to deliver food from restaurants in one of the Moscow districts and today these rovers deliver food not only in Russia, but also at the Ohio State University’s campus.

Nice, yet not perfect

But why robotic couriers with all their indisputable advantages are not widely used today? The key reason is the lack of a barrier-free urban environment. As long as most robotic couriers can only use roadways and sidewalks, they won’t be able to reach the buyer’s apartment. To pick up their orders, most residents still have to go outdoors. The only exception is the residents of smart buildings equipped with robots, smart elevators and a barrier-free environment that allows for robotic door-to-door delivery. These technologies are already in use, but mostly outside Russia.

“Pizza time!”

A good example of such technologies is the joint project of KONE and Savioke at the EMC2 Hotel in Chicago, where the interfaces of elevator equipment are integrated with the Relay robotic couriers. Once a guest sends a request to the reception, the hotel employees load the robot with the requested goods, such as food, drinks or hygiene items, and then send it to the guest. Robots can smoothly move between floors thanks to the smart elevators. The dedicated API (Application Programming Interface) helps robots exchange information with the elevator to get to the desired floor and then directly move to the guest’s door. As a result, guests are satisfied with the delivery and the hotel staff gets free from the most routine tasks.

However, robots will be able to perform door-to-door delivery between buildings and drive smoothly through the streets to a home or office only when contactless access control technologies, barrier-free urban environments and smart elevators are deployed.

Carriers don’t need barriers

Construction companies are going to design new buildings with respect to automated delivery. This market is expected to grow up to $38.3 billion by 2027. Robotic delivery will boost up the development of barrier-free urban environments, at least in public places. A wide range of industries, from robot developers to construction companies and from delivery services and retailers to manufacturers of smart elevators, are interested in it.

From robotic delivery to social equality

Promotion of barrier-free urban environments will also help disabled people apply to office jobs where in-person meetings or business trips may be required. The employment of disabled people is still a problem: in 2019 and 2020 Russia had about 3.5 million disabled people who were able to work, but, according to the Ministry of Labor, less than 30 % of them were employed. And, of course, one of the key reasons is the lack of barrier-free urban environments and infrastructures.

Therefore, the development of robotic delivery will help save last-mile delivery costs for companies, adopt smart elevators for residents of multi-storey buildings and create easily accessible barrier-free environments in public places for disabled and elderly people as well as for parents with small kids. 

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