Robots delivering the goods for retailers

Amazon is ramping up its research and development (R&D) investment in autonomous delivery in the UK, adding to some well-established work in this space by the grocery sector.

The technology titan is creating a new team at its Cambridge development centre which will focus on Amazon Scout, the company’s fully electric autonomous delivery service already in test mode in the US.

Amazon Scout vehicles are the size of a small fridge and roll along pavements at a walking pace. They are currently used to deliver packages to customers in four states in the US, as Amazon assesses the technology and its suitability for fulfilment.

By investing in a UK team, which Amazon said will consist of dozens of engineers, there will be departments on both sides of the Atlantic developing on-system software to help the Scout devices safely and autonomously navigate around neighbourhoods.

On announcing the R&D function in Cambridge, Sean Scott, vice-president of Amazon Scout, said the navigation work will focus on how vehicles avoid collisions with pedestrians, pets and obstacles such as recycling bins and sign posts.

“The team we’re building in Cambridge will work closely with the Amazon Scout research lab in Seattle,” he said. “We’re now hiring software development engineers who are at the forefront of robotics and autonomous systems technology.”

Toby Pickard, head of insight, innovations and futures at grocery research group IGD, says Amazon’s move will inevitably be linked to its drive to get a firmer hold in the grocery sector. Although, as the “everything store”, it will consider distributing multiple product ranges through this service, he adds.

He expects the new autonomous delivery vehicle R&D will be conducted in tandem with further testing of aerial drones for fulfilment, which previously took place in Cambridge.

Aside from Whole Foods, which it acquired in 2017, Amazon does not have a wide network of its own UK stores from which Scout can fulfil goods. “Maybe more partnerships will grow with Morrisons, Booths and others – fulfilling from those stores would be one way of utilising Scout,” Pickard says.

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Early pioneers

Supermarket chains in the UK already experimenting with this type of technology for deliveries include Tesco and Co-op Food. The latter has the most extensive autonomous delivery proposition in the UK, operating from eight stores in the Milton Keynes region.

Co-op delivers goods to customers via Starship Technologies’ robots in several neighbourhoods in the Buckinghamshire town. From two stores using the robot delivery service at the start of the year, it now has eight stores connected to Starship’s technology following a growth in demand during the coronavirus lockdown.

Between March and June 2020, when many shops closed and people were told by the government to stay at home as much as possible, Co-op doubled the number of its orders via robot – and the value of the goods ordered grew fourfold. It makes thousands of deliveries a week via robot, although stops short of revealing the exact figure.

The robots, which use GPS routing software, require a personal shopper code to open, and are fitted with several security features including cameras, were also programmed to pause to “clap and cheer” at 8pm on Thursday evenings at the start of the pandemic. It brought them in line with the actions of many Britons giving thanks to carers and key workers for their contribution to tackling the pandemic.

Circa 2,000 Co-op products and popular ranges are available via Starship delivery, and Jason Perry, the retailer’s head of online development, says the pick-from-store model allows the company’s nascent online business to grow while still driving sales via stores.

“It fits nicely with our focus on choice, speed, convenience and zero emissions, as well as getting extra volume through Co-op shops,” he says of the service, which forms part of a wider online retail expansion plan he is helping to formulate at the retailer.

Aside from a Starship partnership from one store in April 2018, Co-op did not start selling groceries online until spring 2019, when it launched a service in London. That has since been extended across the UK, supplemented by an online grocery offering via food delivery app Deliveroo, the Starship tie-up, and other third-party fulfilment partnerships.

“The robots are suited to our on-demand customer shopping missions – we’re about food for now, and shoppers getting it quickly and having it delivered safely,” adds Perry, who says, in this particular case, robots have helped create Co-op jobs not replace staff.

More robot delivery across the UK depends on local authorities like those in Milton Keynes permitting it, but for now Starship is making a name for itself in Buckinghamshire – and Co-op is its key major retail partner there.

For Co-op, which now operates online retail from around 200 UK stores, the robots are one component of wider plans to use digital to better to serve its communities. And the way it uses technology to do that will seemingly evolve over time.

“Building the e-commerce platform, we’ve tried to approach it from a tech-friendly way so a lot of it is API-driven and it means we can partner with who we like in the future,” says Perry.

“There’s definitely scope to deepen our tech partnership with Starship, whether that is availability from shop or integrated deliveries from our own platform. For us, it’s about finding the right time to do those things.”

Tesco has also worked alongside Starship, and more work in the autonomous delivery space could be on the cards at the UK’s largest retailer after it announced its Red Door innovation programme in September.

Under the leadership of new group innovation director, Claire Lorains, Tesco announced in September that it is looking to engage with organisations that can help it disrupt the status quo and gain “true competitive advantage”.

It is on the hunt for innovators to help various aspects of its business, although the four initial priority areas are food & drink products and technology, data, robotics and automation, and packaging.

“There’s lots more to come, as we work with partners to develop new and disruptive innovations, and we welcome approaches from anyone with an idea to share,” said Lorains when announcing the Red Door initiative.

For retailers working with Starship, robot delivery orders are made via the technology company’s app – as opposed to the retailer itself. Pickard suggests this format is a potential obstacle to adoption, as consumers will need to download an additional app.

“There’s an element, here, of needing to onboard shoppers – it’s likely those using it first are going to be an early adopter of technology and an online shopper already, so these are barriers the industry is overcoming,” Pickard adds.

From robots to driverless vehicles

Like Co-op, online-only grocer Ocado tends to adopt an experimental outlook when trialling new delivery options and partnerships.

But while Ocado’s robots are consigned primarily to its warehouses, for picking and packing purposes, as well as part of the Ocado Smart Platform it licenses to third parties, it did dabble with driverless delivery in 2017. An experiment took place with autonomous vehicle software provider, Oxbotica, in a residential property development in east London, which tested the potential of food delivery by autonomous Cargopod.

Although nothing of that nature has been launched as part of Ocado’s day-to-day retail delivery, it is investigating ways autonomous vehicles might function in conjunction with delivery robots. Ocado founder, Tim Steiner, told the National Retail Federation’s annual Big Show, in New York City in January, that it is “playing in that space”.

In the US, Walmart is one of several retailers working alongside autonomous vehicle company, Nuro. It began a pilot in Houston, Texas in December 2019, exploring how the technology could fit into its ever-developing online grocery operation.

Nuro has worked with Kroger, CVS and Dominos in the US, and a spokesperson for the tech company says each opportunity to work with a new brand provides “a major learning experience”. If interest develops, autonomous fulfilment will be offered via retailers’ websites, with customers able to track progress of the delivery via a Nuro app.

“As for our partners, many of them are pursuing autonomous delivery to help close the last mile and lower delivery costs to their customers,” the spokesperson says.

“We plan to begin deliveries with Walmart soon. Right now, we’re actively delivering with Kroger and CVS and have made thousands of deliveries to date in Houston.”

Like in the UK, the spokesperson says wider adoption depends on state and federal regulation evolving to encompass self-driving delivery for non-passenger vehicles.

Autonomous delivery remains an area of potential growth in retail technology, with some huge players exploring its practicality. IGD’s Pickard says: “The FMCG approach to this sort of initiative is always ‘is it scalable?’. I’m not sure that’s the right question. It’s about ‘is it viable?’. Because it will reduce the last-mile costs and it’s an alternative delivery – it’s about putting it in the right places to reduce costs.”

Commenting more broadly on the impact autonomous delivery vehicles, including aerial drones, can have on retail in the future, he adds: “People overestimate the short-term impact but underestimate the long term, and I think this is one which will have a long-term impact.”

Amazon has built much of its success in retail on long-term thinking, and Nuro’s marketing video content emphasises that “this is just our beginning”. More robot delivery in retail may only be a matter of time.

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