The Future of Home Deliveries or An Esky on Wheels?

The Future of Home Deliveries or An Esky on Wheels?

Australia Post has begun trials of a robot delivery system to keep up with demand for online shopping. The home delivery robot, ‘Billy the Box’, which began a four-week trial across Brisbane’s inner-city suburbs in mid-November, has garnered more than a few unfavourable reviews from experts, with some labelling it a ‘glorified esky’ and others calling it out for being ‘uneconomical’.

While the possibilities are exciting to say the least, robotics experts widely agree that the current technology is still very much in its infancy stages and that automated devices won’t be replacing the services provided by a leading transport company, like Reef Group, anytime soon.

According to Australia Post, the aim of the ‘mobile parcel locker’ is to provide an evening delivery service for customers who missed a delivery during the day. Says Tien-Ti Mak, Australia Post’s chief technology officer, “We know that receiving a ‘sorry we missed you’ card can be frustrating. So we’re looking at new ways to redeliver parcels after hours.”

Australia Post is well-known for its willingness to adopt new technologies and move with the times, but are ‘robot posties’ the answer to missed deliveries and ‘snail mail’? That remains to be seen.

A Waste of Money or One Step Closer to the Future?

While Australia Post hasn’t responded to media requests for a figure on the cost of the program, the technologies that support the autonomous delivery service would have taken years to develop and, therefore, would have required a significant amount of taxpayer funding. The government-owned corporation has come under public and media scrutiny for the high salaries and incentives paid to its top employees, notably CEO Ahmed Fahour, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the automated delivery trials have raised questions about the cost and economic feasibility of the program.

The current robot postie prototype can drive on all surfaces, climb slight ascents and is feature-packed, with high-tech sensors, LED lights and cameras which record its journey. In response to questions about potential theft of the robot, Mr Mak told the media that as the robot weighs around 100 kilograms it would be difficult to steal, and Australia Post isn’t expecting theft to be a problem.

However, there are more serious issues than theft for Australia Post to concern themselves with, as the robot is currently accompanied by a human minder (an Australia Post employee) at all times. Moreover, as Billy the Box can only transport one parcel at a time, the technology comes across as rudimentary at best. These are notable issues which have made most robotics and logistics experts interviewed in response to the trials question the reasoning behind the development of the robot postie.

“To require a robot and a human to deliver one parcel when one guy in a truck can deliver a number of parcels without a hitch is not worth it … At face value it doesn’t sound very useful,” says Dr Peter Corke, a robotics expert at the Queensland University of Technology. Dr Corke and other specialists in the field of robotics recognise that the technology required to address the issue of rising demand for home deliveries exists, but they are generally of the opinion that automated home deliveries (in such a rudimentary and limited form) simply doesn’t make sense from an economic perspective.

The current robot postie prototype can drive on all surfaces, climb slight ascents and is feature-packed, with high-tech sensors, LED lights and cameras which record its journey. In response to questions about potential theft of the robot, Mr Mak told the media that as the robot weighs around 100 kilograms it would be difficult to steal, and Australia Post isn’t expecting theft to be a problem.

However, there are more serious issues than theft for Australia Post to concern themselves with, as the robot is currently accompanied by a human minder (an Australia Post employee) at all times. Moreover, as Billy the Box can only transport one parcel at a time, the technology comes across as rudimentary at best. These are notable issues which have made most robotics and logistics experts interviewed in response to the trials question the reasoning behind the development of the robot postie.

“To require a robot and a human to deliver one parcel when one guy in a truck can deliver a number of parcels without a hitch is not worth it … At face value it doesn’t sound very useful,” says Dr Peter Corke, a robotics expert at the Queensland University of Technology. Dr Corke and other specialists in the field of robotics recognise that the technology required to address the issue of rising demand for home deliveries exists, but they are generally of the opinion that automated home deliveries (in such a rudimentary and limited form) simply doesn’t make sense from an economic perspective.

Says Dr Corke, “In a research sense we have the technology to do it [address the challenge], but whether it makes economic sense to put that much computing and senses on a vehicle that delivers a single parcel. It doesn’t sound likely to me.”

Crossing at Intersections – The Greatest Hurdle?  

Perhaps the greatest hurdle for Australia Post is the ability of the robot to navigate traffic and cross at intersections, something that is yet to be sufficiently addressed as the robot currently has a human chaperone. While the robot is outfitted with sensors that enable it to detect objects in its path, the technology is yet to be developed to the point where it can safely cross at intersections.

“How does it cross the road? How does the robot push the button? … There are a lot of practical issues with this that are very difficult to solve,” says Dr Corke. These practical issues will need to be resolved before automated deliveries can play a more significant role in addressing the rising demand for home deliveries solutions.

With Amazon to commence operations Down Under in the next few weeks and local businesses looking for more cost-effective ways of delivering orders to customers in order to compete, new home delivery solutions are certainly required, but is Billy the Box the solution they’re looking for?

Demand for Home Deliveries Is Growing Stronger

With the rise of online shopping, there exists a growing demand for out-of-hours deliveries and robots could help to meet that demand, experts say. As Dr Corke said in response to the trials, “People don’t care how the parcel gets to their house, people don’t like having to be at home waiting for a parcel to be delivered, people just want their parcel delivered quickly and securely, and a robot may or may not be the answer to that.”

As demand exists for after-hours deliveries and will only grow stronger as more people gravitate to online shopping, there’s a growing need for more delivery options than currently exist. While Australia Post’s robot delivery service faces its fair share of hurdles, many experts are of the opinion that automating deliveries is the way forward. Ford and Domino’s have recently trialled automated deliveries and more trials are in the works as technologies improve and make the prospect of completely automated deliveries more feasible.

Reef Group is one of the foremost transport and freight service providers in Perth, Western Australia, with over 15 years’ experience assisting local, interstate and international businesses with their logistics requirements. To speak with a team member about your transport and freight needs, please contact us by calling (08) 9454 3724 or by sending an email to service@reefgroup.net.au.

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