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Autonomous Last-Mile Delivery: COVID-19

Supply Chain Models to Get a Transformation with Autonomous Robots and Drones for Last-Mile Delivery

01 July 2020

The rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks has caused fear and disturbance across the world. Although the mortality rate of COVID-19 is less than 9%, its spread rate is a significant cause of concern. Till June 25, 2020, the number of cases recorded across the globe was more than 9.5 million.  To prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, governments across countries decided to go under lockdowns, making it difficult for people to source their daily essentials and groceries from markets. Additionally, the nation-wide lockdown also resulted in the closure of manufacturing units, which further hampered the supply of daily essentials.

The home quarantine situation has stretched the supply chain with more demand that the service providers can fulfill. The surge in demand for items, includes staples and groceries, medicines, and medical equipment, among other things. An efficient delivery model is imperative and can be highly beneficial in the future as well. The need for an efficient delivery model is fueled by the necessity to implement social distancing and contactless delivery to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

1. Autonomous Delivery for Hospitals

The autonomous modes of transportation also guarantee high priority deliveries at hospitals without any delay. For instance, during the beginning of the novel coronavirus, JD.com, Inc. or Jingdong logistics, a Beijing based e-commerce company, deployed autonomous shuttles and drones to deliver pharmaceutical and commercial goods to people across quarantine zones in the Hubei province. Due to reduced traffic because of self-quarantine, autonomous robots deployed by JD were able to navigate streets freely, thus resulting in faster delivery. As per the data shared by the company, it was revealed that approximately 50% to 70% of daily orders to hospitals were delivered by autonomous vehicles.

2. New Startups Entering the Chinese Market

Various other e-commerce companies in China have followed suite. Meituan Dianping started using autonomous vehicles to deliver goods to various areas in Beijing. Also, Zhen Robotics, which is supported by Alibaba, utilized its autonomous robot services to deliver groceries to various people in Beijing during the quarantine. Additionally, several other new players entered the market.

3. Challenges to Autonomous Last Mile Delivery

Several companies, including Amazon Scout, Kiwibot, and Nuro, with operations in the U.S., faced several challenges in commercializing their robot delivery model. The challenges were related to accessibility, crowded sidewalks, and regulations, among others. Therefore, to strengthen the last-mile delivery process, certain measures must be taken by the companies or stakeholders involved in the mobility segment. Charging units and stations need to be installed so that autonomous drones or robots can be charged en route to enhance their efficiency. The installation of charging units is also expected to increase drones and robots adoption in the future. Moreover, companies manufacturing autonomous robots and drones should collaborate with technology partners to provide sensors and software to enhance these drones and robots' working capabilities.

4. Autonomous Delivery Regulation

Lastly, proper regulations must be formulated that are in sync with the data protection laws across countries. Precise guidelines must be formed and followed along with trial-runs to ensure that an effective delivery system is in place. The guidelines must encompass the entire delivery system, including the space these robots and drones are likely to consume, especially in cities, considering the space crunch.