November 12, 2015

Drones & robots set to deliver online customers

Starship self-driving robot (photo: Starship)
Not a toy: This innocent-looking ground drone could replace the delivery van
Women may find the male fetish for technology generally tedious, but perhaps they should give a guy, who sends them flowers by drone, at least a few marks for trying. Florian Sieg, CEO of Germany's largest flower delivery service Blume 2000, intends to make this possible for his fellow men as early as next year. Thanks to a collaboration with Skycart, the California-based drone shipping service, they will soon be able to fly flowers to girlfriends on St. Valentine's Day and to mums on Mother's Day.

Blume 2000 wanted to provide a live demonstration for interested companies in Hamburg on Tuesday at its "Drone Delivery Event". Somewhat embarrassingly, the Ministry of Transport refused to authorise the flight due to strong winds. Was this, one wonders, a bad omen or merely the teething problem of an eaglet?

For all those afraid of having something dropped on their head Skype founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis have invented a self-driving robot that can deliver groceries to the home, while Yamaha has just unveiled a robot motorcyclist that could also be used by retailers. Clearly the local online delivery market is in for a big shakeup.

Traditional bricks & mortar retailers are always grumbling about the cost of "going the last mile" when delivering online orders to consumer doorsteps. In the past, they have been very clever at getting shoppers to do all the driving and lifting. But, as the online revolution gains momentum, they are increasingly obliged to also offer home delivery services where vehicle fleets and/or rentals, plus drivers' wages represent considerable cost in a wafer-thin margin business.

Skycart drone delivering flowers for Blume 2000 (photo: Jan Northoff)
UFO with a box of flowers: Strong winds in Hamburg grounded a demonstration flight
Florian Sieg is confident that he can get his flower delivery system up and running by next year. The list of attendees at the Drone Delivery Event reveals some of the potential areas of interest: Otto Group, the parcel delivery service Hermes, coffee maker and non-food retailer Tchibo, drugstore operator Budnikowsky, skin care company Beiersdorf, as well as wine merchants Hawesko and Rindchen's Weinkontor.

While Amazon, Google and Walmart lobby the US government to authorise the commercial use of drones, German transport minister Alexander Dobrindt doesn't see just benefits. "New dangers could arise from, for example, collisions and crashes." Dobrindt therefore intends to introduce a driving licence for commercial drones and to ban flights in specific zones.

This hasn't, however, deterred pioneer Skycart or its first retail customer, Norderstedt-based Blume 2000. As Skycart co-founder Lukas Wrede explains, the new service doesn't employ toy drones, which are usually guided by people. The computerised, autonomous system uses GPS, cameras, mapping software and sensors. Currently Skycart must obtain authorisation for every flight, but the company hopes that a new legal ruling will soon allow drones to fly clearly-defined air corridors.

Both partners want to start with local deliveries within a radius of 15km, and Blume 2000 will initially fly its flowers between two fixed landing bays. Customers are notified on their smartphone as soon as deliveries arrive. "They increasingly expect on-demand delivery," says Sieg.

At present, Blume 2000 uses a DHL parcel service to pick up orders from two central production sites four to eight times a day, enabling around 3,000 to 5,000 home deliveries. "But you can multiply that by 35 on important public holidays."

Despite the setback at Tuesday's Drone Delivery Event, Sieg refuses to be disconcerted: "It was merely a pity that we didn't get the chance to show what this technology can do. Snow and rain don't worry drones at all, but windy squalls are another matter."

Sieg sees the main advantage of delivery drones in the speed and reliability with which they can effect last-minute orders. "We receive, for instance, 30 per cent of our Mother's Day orders the night before. Also, flowers are highly-emotional presents which often depend on a specific date or time." Sieg is particularly proud that his drones can deliver within 30 minutes and in an environmentally-friendly way.

For those still not entirely at ease with flowers from the sky, Starship Technologies intends to commence trials with fleets of small delivery robots next year. "Our vision revolves around three zeroes – zero cost, zero waiting time and zero environmental impact," says Ahti Heinla.

Capable of carrying the equivalent of two grocery bags (20lbs), the company claims that the robots can complete local deliveries within five to 30 minutes from a local hub or retail outlet for ten to 15 times less than the cost of current last-mile delivery alternatives.

During delivery, shoppers can track the robot's location in real time through a mobile app, and on arrival only the app holder is able to unlock the cargo. Integrated navigation and obstacle avoidance software enables the robots to drive autonomously, but they are also overseen by human operators who can step in for safety reasons. Apparently, they even cry out for help if someone tries to rob them.

Starship Technologies is currently testing and demonstrating prototypes and plans to launch the first pilot service in co-operation with its partners in the US, UK (London, Greenwich) and other countries in 2016.

Last but not least, Yamaha has just unveiled a robot motorcyclist. Ever wanted to have your food delivered by an Easy Rider?


Related articles in German: By Birgitt Loderhose in Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 46, 13.11.2015


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