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How Mobile Robots, Autonomous Vehicles and Drones Can Speed Up the Last Mile

A new report from IDTechEx contends that last-mile delivery is the most expensive part of the delivery chain, often representing more than 50 percent of the overall cost.

That’s why many companies are looking to bring greater automation into the last mile, utilizing autonomous mobile robots, drones and autonomous vehicle technology to bring efficiency to what typically is the least productive and automated step.

The report, “Mobile Robots, Autonomous Vehicles, and Drones in Logistics, Warehousing and Delivery 2020-2040,” from the technology consultancy and research company analyzes the diversity and breadth of design and technology choices that must be made in creating a more automated logistics network.

The report zeroed in on recent developments that have seen common use or piloting of products such as sidewalk delivery robots and autonomous delivery vans.

These robots, pods and vehicles are almost always battery-powered and electrically driven, the report noted. The electronic drive gives better control of motion, especially when each wheel can be independently controlled; the interface between the electronic control system and the electrical drive train is simpler, eliminating the need for complex systems found in autonomous vehicles, and their production process involves fewer parts, making it easier to be manufactured by smaller companies.

Another key technology and business choice is where to navigate, the report said. For example, many robots are designed to travel on sidewalks and pedestrian pavements, while the van-looking pods and vehicles are often meant to be road-going.

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“This choice of where to travel has determining consequences for the design, technology choice, target markets and business model,” the report said.

Sidewalk robots seem to have more potential for faster development, the report noted, because they are designed to travel slowly for better safety, while also allowing robots more time to process information and to give remote tele-operators the chance to intervene. They also can then be categorized as a personal device versus a vehicle, easing legislative challenges.

The sidewalk environment is also quite different than that of the on-road vehicles. As such, companies will need to collect, calibrate and mine their own datasets, the report noted.

“Furthermore, the datasets will require great diversity to accommodate different light, perception and local conditions,” it said. “As such, deployments in many sites even as pilot programs is essential in further improving the robots and can indeed represent a competitive advantage.”

These sidewalk robots are still far from being totally autonomous, IDTechEx notes. For example, “They are often deployed in environments such as U.S. university campuses where there is little sidewalk traffic and where the sidewalks are well structured. Many robots are also restricted to daylight and perception-free conditions.”

They are also controlled by remote tele-operator centers that take over, via the internet, when the robots encounter situations they cannot handle with high confidence. Critically, the human operators still operate road-crossings that are dangerous and unable to be performed by the robots.

“The ratio of operators to robots will need to be kept to an absolute minimum if such businesses, which essentially propose to eliminate wage overheads, are to become viable and sustainable,” the report said.

Also, there is still much work to do to improve the navigation technology. The robots will need to learn to operate in more complex and varied environments with minimal intervention. This requires extensive investment in software development.

IDTechEx said firms in the field have a long road ahead of them before they reach profitability.

“They should improve the robots to work in more scenarios beyond well-structured neighborhoods and campuses, to extend their operation to all-day and all-weather conditions, and to extend autonomous operation with little error to nearly all scenarios to drive down the remote operator-to-fleet size ratio,” the report said. “The deployed fleet size will need to dramatically increase to expand income from delivery services and allow the amortization of the software development costs over many units sold.”

The inflection point will not likely occur until around 2025, given the readiness level of technology, IDTechEx said. “Consequently, our forecasts suggest that despite the upfront technology and market challenges, the market will grow and those who plant their seeds today will reap the benefits tomorrow,” the company said.