Global e-commerce sales are on a steep upward trajectory in mature markets like Europe, the States and China. But the rapid increase in online shopping is ramping up the pressure on the logistics and transport sectors. Faster and smarter shipping is now a key area of competition, particularly in the ‘last mile’ – the last part of freight journeys – to customers. That’s due to the density of urban housing and infrastructure. It makes the last mile the least efficient in terms of time, emissions and congestion. Indeed, according to Honeywell, it accounts for over 50% of logistics costs.
Challenges and opportunities
“People are waking up to the fact that freight produces a large and increasing portion of daily road miles, particularly during the peak hours,” said Independent Transport Commission director, Matthew Niblett, at the launch of a recent report on ‘How can we improve urban freight distribution in the UK?’.
The report focuses on London as an exemplar because the capital faces some of the greatest policy challenges in terms of urban distribution, particularly in terms of air quality and congestion. It identifies principles that policymakers should use when addressing urban freight policy challenges, which could help translate the success of various London initiatives to other UK cities.
Industry expert Freight in the City points to the last mile as an important part of the supply chain where environmental and efficiency gains can be made, whether that’s through the adoption of electric vehicles or by developing more intelligent delivery systems.
But there is also a sound argument for being smarter with the resources already at your disposal.
In the States, Walmart is aiming to serve online customers by its employees dropping off purchases on their way home from work. It’s a pilot for now, taking place in three US stores, but the retail giant has ambition to scale up the programme and leverage its 4700-store footprint.
However, while logistics companies and retailers are attempting to drive down costs and become more efficient through smarter route planning and better deployment of their assets, they run the risk that of upsetting consumers by compromising cost for inconvenient deliveries. As Amazon Prime shows, consumer expectations are pushing the economics of delivery in the opposite direction to inexpensive and convenient.
Made in Estonia, going global
For those of us involved in sustainability and innovation, the last mile is an area that demands attention. It’s a critical juncture, impacting energy, mobility and environment in the context of both ‘traditional’ and smart cities.
So, it was a pleasure to join colleagues from the British-Estonian Chamber of Commerce on a behind-the-scenes visit to Starship Technologies (which features as a case study in the ITC report) to find out how the pioneering delivery service founded in Estonia is progressing with its international roll-out.
Starship Technologies was launched by Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis in 2014. The duo has successfully transformed two major industries before: the telecom industry with Skype, and the record industry with KaZaA.
With Starship Technologies, they have set about introducing an entirely new personal delivery device (PDD) in the shape of robots, to transform the last mile of local delivery
“Last mile delivery is the largest bottleneck in growth of the e-commerce industry, especially local e-commerce such as groceries and food delivery. Robotic delivery is the affordable, convenient and environmentally friendly to solve the problem,” said Sandra Sooläte, Head of Operations UK at Starship Technologies.
In the future, Starship’s robots will offer delivery of goods within 15-30 minutes, for around £1/€1/$1. Currently, the company is focused on parcel, grocery and food deliveries. It’s operating in the UK, the States, Germany and its native Estonia with partners like Domino’s Pizza, Just Eat, Hermes, Swiss Post, Wolt, DoorDash, Postmates, Foodora and others.
Here in London, the PDDs are already becoming a familiar site around the boroughs of Greenwich, Lewisham and Southwark.
Order a takeaway from Just Eat for example, and you might receive your food in a local delivery robot. After you’ve ordered (and if you’re within a robot range of two miles) you are then notified on your mobile that your food is ready for delivery (i.e. the restaurant has placed your food into the robot). The power now lies in your hands. You can call the delivery at any time convenient to you, even the middle of the night. Once the robot turns up at your door, you press the ‘Unlock’ button through your mobile application. The lid unlocks and you take your food. Easy. The robots can carry loads of up to 20 lbs, roughly the equivalent of three bags of shopping.
The PDDs are electrically-powered and emit zero emissions. The surprising thing is how they blend in to the street scene. They act like pedestrians: moving on the pavement, merging with people as they walk, matching their speeds. The robots have obstacle detection. Each one uses its nine cameras and ultrasonic sensors to detect obstacles, whether it be a dog or a pedestrian/cyclist. The robot will always stop at a safe distance, which as it is only travelling at 4 mph, makes this very easy.
Each robot uses a mixture of GPS and computer vision to pinpoint its exact location to the nearest inch. To do this the robot must map the area before it can operate autonomously. It does this by using computer vision. This is where the robot uses straight lines to analyse where it is at any time to build a 3D map of its surroundings. The straight lines could be anything from a curb, to a brick wall, parked car etc. Once the robot has mapped the area using straight lines, it then simply compares what its seeing at that time to what it mapped enabling the robot to know precisely where it is to the nearest inch.
Currently, the PDDs operate autonomously for most of the time. However, a remote human operator can assume control at any point. In the short term, the robots are operating out of Starship Technologies’ locations. The company has produced over 100 robots to date, which have travelled over 30,000 miles on public pavements in over 70 cities in 16 countries. Along the way, they’ve encountered more than 6.6 million people.