In the summer of 2018, our team wrote: “Starship Technologies, from the founders of Skype, promises that its delivery bots will reduce the cost of local delivery to $1. What if that’s true? How will it change the system?” In 2018, that change was coming towards us all quickly. Now in 2020, spurred on by a global pandemic, that change is barreling towards us all faster than anyone could have anticipated. With the need to limit person-to-person interactions and massive growth in eCommerce purchasing, the international environment is ideal for this emerging industry to make its move and companies have taken notice.
Starship Technologies introduced its first commercial deployment of their delivery robots in March in the town of Milton Keynes in the UK. Andy Curtis, the company’s head of UK operations reported in April, a few weeks after the program started: “…To date the robots have completed over 100,000 autonomous deliveries, travelled over 500,000 miles and completed over 5m road crossings around the world.” In August, the company announced it was expanding service to more locations including Tempe, Arizona. Starship isn’t the only company tackling this COVID-induced delivery opportunity.
A different type of delivery robot, the Nuro autonomous delivery vehicle, is a sort of self-driving car which travels via roads (not sidewalks) unlike the Amazon or Starship Drones which seek to mimic pedestrian transport. Sola Lawal, Houston Delivery Service Manager at Nuro, wrote for Medium in July. “We found that Nuro could reach 14 million low-income households in food deserts nationwide, or 70% of the total low-income population in food deserts. That’s more people than live in Pennsylvania, the fifth most populous state. In Houston alone, we estimate that self-driving delivery services could reach 350,000 low-income people who live in food deserts.”
Amazon, which has seen sales surge during the coronavirus pandemic, announced in early August that its autonomous delivery robot, the Amazon Scout, will be introduced in Atlanta, Georgia and Franklin, Tennessee, adding the two cities to the drone’s list of participating locations, which already includes parts of California and Washington state. To start, all of the Scout robots will be accompanied by a human handler to monitor deliveries. If Starship’s success in Milton Keynes and subsequent expansion into Arizona is any indication, this pilot program should expand rapidly in our current climate where demand for contactless delivery is high.
In addition to their sidewalk-traversing Scout robots, Amazon is also seeking to expand their use of delivery drones upward. Starting with its first 100% automated delivery in December of 2016, the company has been working to get approval to expand airborne drone usage in the U.S. In late August of 2020, the company finally received approval from the federal government to do so, adding another massive advantage to their already fast-growing presence in this space. That approval, paired with the new realities of a pandemic requiring social distancing and cost-cutting by employers, has set Amazon up to accelerate the introduction of these drones into everyday deliveries. While Amazon may appear poised to take over this sector, the company is certainly not guaranteed to do so and is already facing a challenge from a familiar competitor: Walmart.
Only a month after the F.A.A. and Amazon reached their historic deal, Walmart announced a deal of its own. The Walmart pilot program launching in Fayetteville, NC will initially focus on delivering certain grocery and household items.
Our latest initiative has us exploring how drones can deliver items in a way that’s convenient, safe, and – you guessed it – fast. Today, we’re taking the next step in our exploration of on-demand delivery by announcing a new pilot with Flytrex, an end-to-end drone delivery company.
What does the future hold?
In 2030, we will see Amazon and Walmart completing drone deliveries of orders placed on their sites in cities across the country. At the same time, consumers can expect to see Starship and other delivery robot companies working with non-Amazon affiliated businesses, likely grocery and C-stores, to complete short range deliveries. Whether by road, sidewalk or sky, autonomous vehicles will be helping to complete most deliveries placed by American households nationwide within the decade.