Amazon’s delivery robot won’t deter its drone delivery plans

01 February 2019

The rise of autonomous robots has captured the attention of e-commerce giant Amazon as the company last week introduced the Amazon Scout, a six-wheeled, electric-powered robot crawler that is designed to deliver packages door-to-door.

Autonomous robots for delivery have exploded in the past year with a number of startups testing the viability of these machines in the delivery of goods and parcels. These include the San Francisco Bay Area and U.K. pilot done by Starship Technologies; Postmates’ fleet of googly-eyed delivery robots powered by Nvidia’s Xavier processor; Kiwi’s pilot in Berkeley, California, that recently had one of the machines explode in flames; and Robby Technologies' delivery robot called Robby 2 that debuted at CES 2018.

More recently, the trend has moved to higher profile companies with Pepsico launching a robot delivery service called Snackbot on the campus of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. With Amazon joining the ranks of larger companies testing delivery robots, it may be only a matter of time before these robots are commonplace around the world.

Of course, this isn’t the only new delivery method that Amazon is exploring. About five years ago, the company announced it was testing the use of drones for last-mile delivery to expedite package delivery to customers as well as providing a greater amount of efficiency to the process.

Initially, it was laughed at. No one believed that drones, which at the time were just used for recreation, could be harnessed to deliver toothbrushes, clothes, toys and electronics through the air. Fast forward to 2018 where drone delivery projects cropped up in droves with startups and larger companies testing the machines for not just package delivery but for delivering food, drinks and medicine.

Given that these new methods of delivery are aiming to do the same thing — deliver packages faster and easier to customers — will delivery robots have any impact on Amazon’s drone plans?

More than likely no, Stelios Kotakis, senior research analyst for service provider technology at IHS Markit, told Electronics360.

“I do not believe robot delivery will impact its drone program but I do not consider them to be complimentary as well,” Kotakis said. “I feel that there is a certain goal of autonomous delivery of parcels but Amazon is trying to find the most convenient way to make this happen and be safe, convenient and easy to construct.”

This means Amazon may employ all of its innovations in the future of last-mile delivery but in different ways. In more rural areas where customers are spread out, drones may make more sense because of their ability to travel greater distances. Whereas robot delivery makes more sense in the suburbs or on campuses where the crawlers can help multiple customers in a smaller area. The market could also see a combination of the two where drones and robots are deployed from a central hub or van and the autonomous machines go about delivering goods throughout a given area. This was the idea behind Continental’s prototype project it unveiled at CES 2019 involving autonomous delivery pods and robot delivery dogs.

Robots can also deliver larger goods given that they have a larger container for cargo and will travel on land. Drones, by their very nature, are light with most only able to carry up to about 10 pounds. While there are drones in development that will allow for a larger payload, such as the recently announced Drone Delivery Canada testing of a 50 pound cargo drone, safety and operation testing will need to be completed before they become available.

Amazon Scout

Details on the Amazon Scout are thin, but the company said the container is about the size of a small cooler and it travels at a walking pace. Amazon will begin delivering packages via Amazon Scout to customers in Snohomish County, Washington.

Amazon will begin the pilot project with six Amazon Scout robots delivering packages during daytime hours from Monday through Friday. The robots will be accompanied by an Amazon employee but will operate autonomously.

The robot contains technology that will allow it to navigate safely around pets, pedestrians and anything else in its path, and packages delivered by the robot are ordered as they are now, either through the website or the Amazon app.

The only hiccup may be that with a normal delivery, a human drops a package off at the door and then walks away leaving the package in place until that customer comes home. With Amazon Scout, it appears that the customer needs to be at home in order to receive the delivery. Given this new dynamic, it is unclear how it will change the delivery process or if customers will be alerted to a robot waiting for it outside.

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