Singapore sends 'robot couriers' out for delivery

Two autonomous robots have be rolled out in a pilot to facilitate on-demand food and grocery deliveries within a trial area comprising 700 residential households, though, the Singapore government hopes it can lead to a wider deployment to offer more flexible delivery service.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Autonomous robots are hitting the streets of Singapore in a one-year pilot to facilitate on-demand food and grocery deliveries. The Singapore government hopes the trial will lead to a wider deployment of such bots to provide consumers with more flexible delivery services. 

Currently underway in Punggol, the one-tests would enable residents in the area to choose when they would like their items delivered, rather than accommodating the online retailer's fixed delivery schedule. Shoppers at the supermarket, for instance, could drop off their purchases at a concierge counter and arrange for these to be delivered to their residential apartment at a time they desired, and continue with their shopping or dining. 

Perishables including food and flowers as well as some controlled items such as medicine could be delivered through the "robot couriers", according to a statement Thursday by Singapore's Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), the government agency leading the initiative. 

The pilot also would be run in partnership with Housing & Development Board (HDB), Land Transport Authority (LTA), Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), logistics service provider CM Logistics, supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice, and technology vendor OTSAW. 

Two OTSAW robots would be sent out to deliver parcels and groceries to lift lobbies of seven Waterway Woodcress HDB apartment blocks. 

With the pilot, IMDA would be looking to assess the use of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) for autonomous navigation, as well as to detect and avoid obstacles. It also would be evaluating the infrastructure including communications systems and road networks, including connectivity and slopes, and business models for their commercial viability. 

Stressing the need to ensure public safety, IMDA said the two robots must pass LTA's safety assessment tor supervised use of autonomous vehicles on public paths. 

Weighing 80kg each, the autonomous robot would be able to move faster than 5kmph and must be accompanied by a safety officer during the test period. 

Shoppers would need to download the mobile app to receive notifications, for example, when the bots were en route and confirmation that they had arrived.  The robot also would provide a QR code that recipients could scan at the collection point with their mobile phones. This would ensure only the authorised person would be able to access the assigned compartment and its contents. 

IMDA's deputy chief executive Kiren Kumar said: "With the growth of e-commerce, consumers have grown accustomed to expecting food, products, and groceries to be delivered to their home in increasingly shorter periods of time. Autonomous delivery robots can play an important role in augmenting existing delivery infrastructure to enhance the consumer experience and drive productivity gains."

According to HDB's group director for properties and land Kee Lay Cheng, there are some 700 residential households in the test zone of Waterway Woodcress. 

LTA's chief innovation and transport technology officer Lam Wee Shann added: "Autonomous delivery technology has the potential to increase business efficiency and improve customer convenience. As paths are also used by other users, it is also important to ensure the delivery is carried out in a safe manner."

Lam said the land authority would work with its partners to establish safeguards to ensure public safety during the pilot and tap the insights to improve future projects.

The Singapore government in January identified key underlying infrastructures it believed would pave the way for the country to become a global and regional e-commerce hub. Its "five-pronged" strategy included building out the local 5G networks, supply chain capabilities, and payment platforms. 

Fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, online transactions in Singapore accounted for 14.3% of total sales value last November, up from just 5.8% in January.


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