Will humanoid robots replace couriers?

Last mile logistics is a hot topic in the courier industry, as delivering a package from a local courier depot to the customers’ front doors is the shortest, but at the same time the most expensive, stage in the entire delivery process. No wonder courier companies are frantically looking for a solution to the last mile problem. Nothing stops them from using such unconventional tools as humanoid robots as a replacement for couriers.

If it weren’t for the fact that such a machine actually exists, then no-one would believe it exists. Even more sci-fi seems to be the fact that it may soon knock on your door with a package in its hand. Yes, in its hand, because it has something like arms and hands. And legs and feet too. Only its head is hard to distinguish, as it is unusually small and without a neck.  Maybe because it is empty, as its brain is in its chest. Who (what?) are we talking about? The courier robot Digit.

Digit did not escape from the set of Star Wars

It will be obvious to any Star Wars fan that Digit is a droid or an android. In addition to the previously mentioned very inconspicuous head, the robot presented at the beginning of 2020 by Ford Motors has a humanoid form. However, it can easily and quickly fold itself into a form that fits in a large suitcase, if necessary. The machine was developed and manufactured by Agility Robotics. Observing Digit’s actions, you cannot be sure that dexterity is its most important feature. However, the fact is, it can walk and climb stairs, and it can do push-ups and squats when needed. And it has the stamina to be the envy of many fitness fans. Of course, its key function is the ability to handle packages. Interestingly, they do not have to be specially prepared shipments, but the most ordinary cardboard boxes.

The concept is that Digits will be driven to the delivery area, and then each of them will pick up a package and go to the address provided. After delivering one package, the robot will return, pick up the next one and move to its delivery address. If you imagine an area full of office buildings or apartment buildings, you will easily understand how efficient and economical this solution can be.

If the work on improving the robot’s mobility and developing its manipulation capabilities continues, Digit could also be able to become a picker or packer. Even, if it were a little less agile than a human, it would take a fraction of a second to find the third dimension when palletising or determining the number of boxes that would fit in a collecting container or on a truck bed. It takes many minutes for a man with paper, a pencil and a calculator to do the same. And still there is the risk of human error that the robot and the algorithm will not make.

Drones and autonomous vehicles are also fighting for the last mile

Digit is a leader in the category of unconventional attempts to solve last mile problems. Much more obvious and advanced projects concern the use of drones and autonomous vehicles.

Drones are to be a solution to the problem of traffic in the centres of large cities. Since you cannot avoid traffic jams, you need to get out of them by not using the roads. The largest companies in the industry are interested in flying couriers: DHL has tested drones and UPS already intends to permanently introduce flying couriers to its standard shipment service. The latest news is about Walmart’s project to use drones to deliver food and household goods.

A completely different logistic idea is represented by autonomous vehicles: various types of self-propelled transport carts, vans and even trucks. The smallest vehicles could, theoretically, use pedestrian routes and thus avoid the crowded streets. Unlike drones, they are much less troublesome to navigate and their usage is not so limited by the weight of a package.

Which solution will ultimately take over the last mile? Perhaps it will happen that all the  machines mentioned will be used in parallel. Day-to-day usage will verify the theory as usual. Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: the era of human only delivery services is almost over.