Amazon has made no shortage of investments into its supply chain, especially since demand kicked into high gear at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—with shipping costs in the first quarter alone jumping 49 percent to $10.9 billion. Now, the company is slowly but surely expanding one of its last-mile delivery concepts, bringing its field test of the Scout delivery robot to deliver packages to select customers in Atlanta and Franklin, Tenn.
The e-commerce giant first trialed the autonomous delivery bot last year in January in a single Snohomish County, Wash., neighborhood near its Seattle headquarters before adding a second testing site in Irvine, Calif., in August. An Amazon employee accompanied each of the bots during the trial, but the gadgets are programmed to navigate on their own and ferry packages to customers autonomously.
It’s unclear how many robots are on the road and how many customers Scout is serving, but the “small number” of devices will be delivering Monday through Friday, during daylight hours. Human employees, referred to as “Amazon Scout Ambassadors,” remain part of the trial period, specifically in unloading packages if no one is there to collect them.
The six-wheeled Scout devices are the size of a small cooler and move at a walking pace, and are designed to navigate around pets, pedestrians and other objects in its path.
Customers in the trial areas will order just as they normally would and their Amazon packages will be delivered either by one of Amazon’s carrier partners or by Amazon Scout. The same delivery options are available, including same-day, one-day and two-day shipping for Prime members. There won’t be any additional cost for Scout deliveries.
In a blog post, Amazon Scout vice president Sean Scott said the company is partnering with local schools near Atlanta and Franklin to support STEM and robotics activities, helping to build the next generation of innovators in both cities.
“Expanding our field test to Atlanta and Franklin is one of the many steps forward for this new delivery system and on our path to net zero carbon by 2040,” Scott wrote. “During a time when so many of our customers rely on us to get what they need, bringing Scout to these new locations supplements our transportation network and increases our capacity to deliver what our customers want: great selection, low prices and fast shipping speeds.”
While robotics are more commonly associated with warehousing, interest in customer-facing versions of the technology has increased yet again as companies look for ways to minimize human contact amid increased e-commerce spending. But investing in automated last-mile delivery is not a walk in the park. A January 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.
The end result could be lucrative for the players that get out ahead of the technology. Robotic last-mile deliveries are forecast to generate $48.4 billion in revenue by 2030, according to a March report by Lux Research. JD.com is one such party that made the move at the source of the COVID-19 outbreak as travel and transportation bans were instituted to curb the pandemic. The Chinese retail giant deployed a fleet of unmanned vehicles in Wuhan designed to reduce person-to-person contact while ensuring residents confined to their homes can shop online for essential supplies.
Amazon has shown it is serious about autonomous delivery before the last mile as well, already having tested self-driving trucks developed by Embark to haul cargo on the I-10 interstate highway. In early 2019, Amazon led a $700 million investment in electric vehicle startup Rivian and also invested in self-driving technology company Aurora, helmed by the former head of Google’s self-driving car project.
And in June, Amazon spent as much as $1.2 billion to acquire autonomous driving startup Zoox. The company hasn’t explicitly said whether the acquisition will be specifically for delivery, since Zoox was originally intended more as a taxi service a la Uber. But given the size of the investment, it’s fair to say that the Zoox technology could be used in some way to bolster Amazon’s own fleet of delivery trucks.