Last-mile delivery tech in the spotlight

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By Chris Froud, senior associate and patent attorney in the Electronics, Computing & Physics group at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers.

The sharp increase in online shopping during the pandemic has underlined the important role of the UK’s freight industry in keeping goods moving. However, if e-commerce activity continues to grow as expected, logistics experts are concerned that the UK could be heading for a last-mile delivery crisis. Could new generation delivery robots come to the rescue?

According to recent research data, 42 per cent of non-food sales in the UK took place online in October, which while lower than a year ago, is significantly higher than in October 2019. While the main driver for this increase is of course the pandemic and its associated restrictions, the online shopping trend pre-existed COVID-19 and e-commerce activity is expected to continue to grow in the future.

With demand for parcel deliveries to homes and businesses set to grow, local authorities and residents are increasingly concerned about how this might impact densely-populated urban areas. For example, more delivery vans and trucks on the road could increase road congestion and pollution, as well as releasing more carbon emissions into the environment.

To address these issues, innovative companies have been developing and trialling robotics solutions, which are designed to take vehicles off the road, while facilitating reliable delivery services to homes and businesses in city centres. While such technologies are being applied across the logistics supply chain, much of their focus has been on solving the last-mile delivery problem.

Despite the urgent need to find a solution, particularly at a time of severe driver shortages and continuing supply chain disruption, innovation activity is at a relatively early stage and significant barriers to entry remain. While many localised trials have been given the go ahead, finding solutions that can be scaled easily and safely has proved challenging.

Since August this year, Walmart in the US has been running fully driverless trucks from startup, Gatik, which shuttle online grocery orders back-and-forth between a fulfillment centre and local hub for onward delivery to customer’s houses. Following approval from the local highway authority, the driverless trucks complete a daily seven-mile loop over a 12-hour shift with no human driver as a backup.

Initiatives such as Walmart’s are focused on the middle mile – transporting goods between steps in the supply chain such as warehouses, fulfillment centers and retailers. This frees up drivers for redeployment elsewhere in the supply chain that are not yet automated. Self-driving vehicles are not currently allowed on Britain’s roads, so it is unlikely that the UK will see such innovations anytime soon. However, the Government has confirmed that Level 3 automation, including automatic lane-keeping systems (ALKS), will become legal later this year.

In the UK, Ocado has recently invested £10 million in autonomous vehicle software firm Oxbotica. Self-driving vehicle company Wayve, which uses a camera and AI approach similar to Tesla vehicles, has also partnered with Ocado and Asda to develop fully autonomous deliveries to customer’s doors. However, there are numerous technical and regulatory challenges to overcome. Taking deliveries to customers front doors will require navigating on smaller, more complicated roads. To date, most autonomous vehicles have been tested in sunny climates with wide roads arranged in grid patterns. There will be technical challenges to overcome in applying these autonomous systems to grey and raining Britain with its historical irregular road network.

In the meantime, current commercial applications are focused on automated carts which do not need to travel on the road and can travel at walking pace in pedestrianised areas. Other innovators have been exploring the possibility of using humanoid-style robots or droids, teamed with autonomous vehicles. There are a number of companies experimenting with autonomous carts for completing the last mile, including Bizero, Nuro, and Refraction Ai, with the pandemic seeming to have driven development further, given the interest in contactless deliveries.

A US-owned startup, Starship Technologies, launched by the co-founders of Skype, has been operating a fully-automated grocery delivery service in Milton Keynes, in partnership with Co-op, since 2018. The retailer is extending its partnership with the robot company, with plans to increase the fleet of autonomous vehicles from 200 to 500 by the end of 2021.

Another important strand of research and development activity is drone technology. In September this year, Amazon was granted approval by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate Prime Air delivery drones in the US. The research team involved is exploring ways of integrating drone use into airspace, which would make the technology safer and more reliable, and therefore suitable for mainstream application. Despite many drone trials having taken place around the world, their use in the UK remains controversial and they have tended to be used for small-scale drop-offs of medical or other vital supplies to remote parts of the country. For example, Royal Mail has recently announced a two-week trial of scheduled autonomous flights to deliver mail to remote communities in the Orkney islands.

While significant barriers still need to be overcome, some exciting work linked to the use of ‘swarm robotics’, which allows robots to react to each other, based on learned behaviours, could make drone technology a more viable mainstream solution in the future. For example, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed an algorithm that would allow teams of small drones to collaboratively lift heavy objects, which provides more flexibility for small drones to handle a wider range of different sized parcels.

From an intellectual property (IP) perspective, companies seeking new application solutions for robotics technologies can’t afford to delay seeking patent protection for their innovations, as there are a high number of players working in a relatively narrow field of research and development. If they delay applying for patent protection, a competitor could beat them to it, securing exclusivity rights to market their product or solution as they do so. Of course, patenting early does have a trade-off, as it could shorten the commercial window or opportunity, but it’s better to take this approach than risk wasting time and money developing a product, which cannot then be leveraged commercially.

With so much focus on the last-mile delivery problem and the ongoing threat of disrupted deliveries, robotics companies have a real incentive to invest in scalable solutions and bring them to market. Whatever they come up with, businesses and consumers can be sure that next generation parcel delivery services will look very different from those we know today.

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