Robots fuel the last mile

March 4, 2019
Fully autonomous parcel delivery robots take traffic congestion, lack of parking, and delivery failure out of the last mile equation.

The last mile in the logistics chain is often inefficient and complicated due to traffic, a lack of parking, and high delivery failure rates. Enter Malaysian start-up HelloWorld Robotics, with its mission to use robots for making last-mile delivery smarter, cheaper, and faster.

HelloWorld was founded by 27-year old electrical engineer Kennedy Wai. Despite having just celebrated the company’s first birthday, Wai is already in preliminary talks with Malaysian incubator Futurise to test the first prototypes in Cyberjaya in Selangor this year. HelloWorld’s robots are fully-autonomous, delivering packages to safety boxes that are designed and provided for by the company.

The boom in e-commerce means big business for global parcel delivery. The worldwide market for parcel delivery is estimated at US$79 billion, including pick-up, line-haul, and sorting. The last mile accounts for a substantial portion, up to 50% of the value, which makes it a key area of investment and innovation. It’s also the part of the supply chain most fraught with problems. Distribution in urban areas is hampered by congestion, inefficient collection processes, lack of parking, unconsolidated deliveries, and delivery failure when the recipient is not home. Additional complications in southeast Asia include poor road access or lack of formal or identifiable home addresses.

“For now, a lot of other companies are using robots for delivery but they haven’t provided a fully complete delivery service for their customers,” says Wai. “And that’s one of our advantages.” Autonomous robots, he says, can prove highly useful in low density populations where labour costs are high. In the future, drones will also be an effective solution in circumstances where infrastructure and roads are poor. They still face barriers in urban environments due to their weight restrictions and battery life, as well as regulation.

Wai says HelloWorld’s robots, which can deliver within a three to four-kilometre radius at a speed of about 3km per hour, are ideal for gated communities such as school campuses or industrial parks. By delivering to the purpose-made safety boxes, the customer can conveniently collect items in their own time. Designed to be environmentally friendly, HelloWorld’s robots are also combatting air pollution and traffic congestion, which are among the negative effects of e-commerce.

There is a bright future for the use of automation in logistics, say the authors of the McKinsey report Fast forwarding last-mile delivery–implications for the ecosystem, especially for its potential to increase efficiency: “Autonomous delivery vehicles are and will be the dominant technology in this regard, and they have the power to reshuffle the entire industry.”