Earlier this year, Amazon began testing autonomous robots to deliver packages to customers’ front doors. The robots, officially known as Amazon Scouts but nicknamed ‘adora-bots’, are the size of a portable cooler and are Amazon’s first move into a last-mile delivery service which according to the company, will eventually require no human guidance.
After several months of trials in suburban Seattle and reportedly completing thousands of deliveries, Amazon started testing the delivery robots in Southern California this month. Amazon Scout continues the eCommerce giant’s recent program launches to get goods quickly to customers and joins the ranks of more established projects such as Amazon Key and the Amazon drone project.
Amazon claims that the robots are able to navigate typical real-world objects like rubbish bins, postboxes and street crossings, but right now Amazon Scout cannot climb stairs and still requires physical shepherding from an Amazon employee to monitor its progress, answer questions from passersby, and protect the device and its cargo from harm.
Amazon is the latest in a large list of companies attempting to perfect the use of robots for last-mile delivery. Food deliveries via robot on university campuses in the US are more and more common, the US grocer Kroger has tested delivering groceries via an autonomous robot in Phoenix and Houston, and Domino’s Pizza announced it will begin delivering pizzas in the US via robots later this year. However, even with the boom in interest by companies in “droid delivery”, working out the kinks is much more complicated, and most consumers won’t see their groceries, takeaway food, or Amazon packages delivered by robot any time soon.
All retail and delivery sectors are interested in robot delivery for the same reason. Any company that needs to get goods and meals to customers’ doorsteps is suffering from the same challenge: a lack of drivers. There is simply not enough capacity in the labour market to support the growth of eCommerce over the next five to seven years in terms of people available to bring the product from the local delivery centre to your door. Looking to robotics to shoulder some of that burden is a natural move, but ‘one solution to rule them all’ has not yet been found, and it will be the end of the next decade at best before a clear winner steps forward.
Terrain, weather, social constructs, not to mention stairs, are all challenges that need to be solved before we will see ubiquitous use of robots bringing our shopping to our doors. While there have been great leaps forward in technology and reductions of cost of deployment, the basic problems still exist. The world is not a warm, sunny, flat place, and a robot carrying one package to one customer with a handler who can walk beside it to keep it safe is not cost effective nor scalable. Much like the food delivery business, the model is simply not sustainable long-term in its current form.
While Amazon’s little black and blue ‘adore-bots’ may be cute and promising for the future, for the time being they are still just prototypes and are as far off from wide-spread adoption as driverless cars on city streets. Even if Amazon is able to develop the technology to work in all climates and terrains, their strategy has always been to perfect a program on their home turf before sending it abroad. As a result, with the program being years away from wide use even in the US, it’ll be even longer to see it in the UK. And that’s just the technical side of things.
As with many aspects of our current reality, we have the technology but are not quite ready as a society for autonomous delivery robots. Everyone knows to watch for pedestrians in a zebra crossing, and not to put a snowball into a postbox; rules like that have been ingrained in all of us since we were children. However, social constructs around autonomous robots don’t exist yet outside of research laboratories and won’t for some time. Therefore, it’s not only the technology that’s holding back programs like Amazon Scout, but also, we ourselves. For the time being every robot will still require a human handler to protect it from mischief and being squashed on the road, and that defeats the purpose of the robot to begin with.
Will a time come when you’ll open your door to find a happy robot with your shopping or takeaway dinner? Absolutely. However, don’t expect it any time soon. Amazon Prime shipping or not, that will not be a next day, or even next few years, delivery.
Jon Reily, Vice President, Global Commerce Strategy Lead, Publicis Sapient