How robots can help solve the “last mile” problem

Robotics solutions for the delivery of parcels in various areas of life

Robotics is seen as the future in many areas of life, but especially in (parcel) delivery, as this is very inefficient and expensive, especially in the last section of the delivery process, the “last mile”. In the following, we explain how far robotics solutions to this problem have already been developed and why everything is still not so simple.

In delivery, especially in “last mile” parcel delivery (Problem of “Last Mile” delivery explained), there are very many factual problems that make this section of the delivery process expensive and inefficient. However, as the parcel delivery market is swept along by the tremendous growth of online commerce, high hopes are being pinned on technological solutions to the “last mile” problem.

Autonomous robotics in the future

Above all, robotics and, to be precise, autonomous robotics are considered forward-looking. This means the delivery of parcels (and also food or similar) by means of small mobile vehicles (“delivery robots”) or delivery drones. What sounds like science fiction now has long been researched and technically advanced by the major online retailers and research institutions. In the pedestrian zone of downtown Graz, a prototype of an autonomous delivery vehicle, the so-called “Jetflyer”, was already on the road as a joint pilot project between Austrian Post, Graz University of Technology and Energie Steiermark. However, it still had to be loaded and unloaded manually.

Especially in times of the Corona pandemic, the demand for autonomous delivery solutions has experienced a real boom. Online retailers benefited from the lock-downs that caused brick-and-mortar stores to close, and people who were supposed to stay at home had more time for online shopping. However, a real winning model was not able to establish itself.

Possible development approaches

The development approaches for the technological solution of the “last mile problem” are completely different. Some companies want to keep the basic “setting” and “only” replace the classic delivery truck with an autonomous delivery vehicle, as well as the parcel carrier with a humanoid robot. Some manufacturers are focusing purely on airborne delivery by larger and smaller drones. Some developments are about the size of a car. Relatively common are autonomous companions with dimensions like a small handcart.

The idea behind this approach is that packages are transported from centralized distribution points to more decentralized distribution points and from there to customers by a variety of smaller more flexible vehicles that can easily navigate inner-city traffic because they can navigate sidewalks or pedestrian zones, for example, or travel in the air. Fragmenting the delivery process provides great transparency and flexibility for end customers. For example, deliveries could be parked at a “hub” for a longer period of time and only start moving again when the customer is at the delivery location. It is also easier to change the delivery location spontaneously. Shipments to a customer can also be collected at the various hubs and then forwarded as a uniform delivery. Returns can also be handled easily in such a system. Depending on the development approach, either the packages are transported by robot platforms that can be loaded and unloaded automatically, or the goods are transported directly in theft- and shock-proof boxes that can be picked up and dropped off automatically by the transport robots. One such approach is the vertical “LARNI” from the company ARTI – Autonomous Robot Technology GmbH. From a technical point of view, it would also be possible to heat or cool these boxes in order to transport whole meals or sensitive goods that need to be cooled, for example.

The future of autonomous transport robots

As you can see, there is no shortage of ideas, and technological development has also progressed very strongly in recent years. However, there still remain some challenges that are not so easy to solve.

On the one hand, the autonomous movement of such transport robots and, above all, their coordination places high demands on the control software of the robots and also on the so-called fleet management. Robots literally experience their environment with the help of already existing map material and the sensor impressions they gain of their surroundings. Orientation and navigation in structured environments such as inner-city areas is already very complex, not to mention autonomous locomotion off-road. Even though autonomous driving, i.e. the participation of autonomously driving cars in normal road traffic, is already very advanced, legal issues and safety concerns are slowing down development there, as they are in delivery robotics. In the case of drones, the special problem arises that they cannot be used in heavy rain and wind, and the loading load must be rather low. In addition, the loading and unloading or takeoff and landing of drones is problematic for the delivery sector. Finally, there are also very mundane problems that still hinder autonomous parcel delivery. Human dwellings are adapted to the physical abilities of the majority of the population, which means there are steps, narrow winding corridors, unstructured numbered apartments, doors that only open with bells or even elevators whose doors can only be opened manually. Walking on two legs, which is a matter of course for humans, is surprisingly difficult to reproduce in robotics, and steps and staircases are therefore a major obstacle for robots. The biggest question that arises, however, is how humans would react to encounters with delivery robots and how much confidence they have in this new technology.

Whatever the answer, it will take a lot of time and research before the robot rings the doorbell and delivers the expected package.

Author: Lena Sophie Franke

ARTI is developing software for autonomous mobile robots. Robust enough for real-world scenarios, indoor and outdoor, and suitable for different industrial fields. ARTI offers modular AI-kits as well as full turnkey products. Our customers can pick precisely the solution they need, either build a complete robotic system from scratch or improve existing products by adding artificial intelligence.

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