Health and Healthcare Systems

The pandemic is making autonomous delivery the new normal

A drone, made by CyPhy Works, carries a UPS package on Children's Island off the coast of Beverly, Massachusetts, U.S. September 22, 2016, during UPS's demonstration of a drone making a commercial delivery of a package to a remote or difficult-to-access location. Picture taken September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder  - S1BEUCYKOVAA

Autonomous vehicles allow for contact-free delivery to vulnerable citizens. Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Carey L. Biron
Writer and Editor, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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  • COVID-19 has forced many vulnerable citizens to self-isolate.
  • But contact-free, autonomous deliveries can be a lifeline and help reduce transmission rates.
  • From toilet paper to hot meals, drones and robots are helping to get vital supplies delivered to those who cannot leave their homes.

Cough medicine, snacks, baking ingredients: Kelly Passek has shopping delivered weekly to her yard in Christiansburg, Virginia - by a drone.

The flying vehicle comes with little fuss, hovering briefly over her yard and letting down its package. "It's very fast – even the noise you hear is no more than 30 seconds," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The service is a pilot project by Google parent Alphabet Inc's drone delivery business Wing, which is operating similar projects in Finland and Australia.

In Christiansburg, residents who sign up can get drone delivery from a locally owned businesses, a national pharmacy and FedEx.

As with other autonomous delivery services, both airborne and terrestrial, Wing has seen a major uptick in interest amid the coronavirus pandemic, as emergency regulations keep people at home and complicate many of the simplest tasks.

"For a while, they (Wing) were the only one with toilet paper. It turned from being a novelty to being a service that's used because it's necessary," said Passek, whose first drone delivery was in October.

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The pandemic also got Passek, a public school librarian, thinking beyond the confines of her home, as her school system changed to distance learning in March, raising concerns about how students would get required resources - including books.

After talks with Wing, a book delivery service began for county students in June.

"This is a perfect way to get our students the resources they need and also keep with our social distancing," she said, adding the programme is likely to continue as county officials figure out how to re-open schools in the fall.

More than 140,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, a toll that experts warn will likely surge following recent record spikes in case numbers and an alarming rise in hospitalizations in many states.

The pandemic-era rise in focus on autonomous delivery is also prompting local officials and others to think about how these services use public space in their cities.

"Cities aren't necessarily built for robots roaming around," said Christopher Bruno, economic development director with Fairfax City, Virginia, which recently helped start a robot delivery service. "That's something we're monitoring."

coronavirus covid19 autonomous vehicles artificial intelligence robotics 4IR technology contact-free germ bacteria
A robot delivers a meal in Bowling Green, Ohio. Image: Handout photo by BGSU Marketing and Communications.

Rising demand

Wing was formed in 2012, and last year it became the first drone company to be approved as an air carrier by the federal government.

Within its three-mile Christiansburg delivery area, residents can sign up for the service and get deliveries within about 10 minutes.

The project had been operating for only four months when it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic was accelerating.

In response to customer feedback, the company started to expand its product offerings, said Keith Heyde, head of Virginia operations for the company, including toys and "more food that could be readily prepared".

They also brought in more local businesses, providing an economic lifeline for some: about a quarter of sales at a local cafe now come from drone delivery, Heyde said, while a coffee shop is selling twice as much cold brew as pre-pandemic.

Heyde confirmed that toilet paper became a major seller, as did sidewalk chalk.

Globally, the company saw demand increase 350% month over month in signups for service from February to April, he said.

coronavirus covid19 autonomous vehicles artificial intelligence robotics 4IR technology contact-free germ bacteria
An aerial drone carries a package for delivery. Image: Handout photo by wing.

Economic lifeline

That prospect of economic stimulus has been a draw for some pandemic-hit cities.

About 250 miles northeast of Christiansburg, Fairfax City officials struck an agreement with an autonomous delivery service of an entirely different kind: small, cube-shaped robots that slowly trundle down sidewalks and across streets.

"All of these businesses were closed and forced to social distance, so none of them could connect with their customers," Bruno recalled thinking as the pandemic took hold.

Bruno had heard about delivery robots on the campus of a nearby university, operated by a company called Starship Technologies.

Eventually, a tie-up was born: Starship would operate a fleet of delivery robots, while the city provided a $10,000 grant so that local businesses would not initially have to pay commission.

About 15 businesses are participating - restaurants, a grocery store, and even a hair salon - within 1.5 miles of the city's core, Bruno said.

Demand has been good enough that Starship increased the robot fleet from 15 to 20, he added.

For Jinson Chan, the service not only proved a lifeline but increased his customer base, he said - especially when Chan, whose High Side restaurant focuses on rare craft beers - asked if Starship could deliver alcohol.

"People went crazy," Chan said. Even the robots' limited delivery range proved important: "People who would never try us now say, 'It's only a mile away, so we could walk there.' That helps grow our business."

The pandemic has made for a "very busy" few months, said Ryan Tuohy, Starship's senior vice president for business development, noting that "people were looking for contactless delivery options while also wanting to support local businesses."

The company, which operates in five countries, has gained another 180,000 customers this year, he said.

A food-delivery initiative with Starship on the campus of Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, started in March and "really helped students in the early part of the stay-at-home order", said Jon Zachrich, communications director for the school's dining programme.

"We were trying to find creative ways for those who didn't feel comfortable leaving their rooms or had pre-existing (medical) conditions to get access to what they needed."

Due to popular demand, the service was eventually expanded off campus, covering about four square miles, Zachrich said.

Now, plans for re-opening the school include the robots.

coronavirus covid19 autonomous vehicles artificial intelligence robotics 4IR technology contact-free germ bacteria
An employee loads a delivery onto a robot on the campus of Bowling Green State University, in Ohio. Image: Handout photo by BGSU Marketing and Communications.

'Start with packages'

The pandemic-era interest in package delivery has drawn attention from another key part of the autonomous industry: those developing self-driving vehicles for human use.

That was what happened with Optimus Ride, which since 2015 had focused on developing self-driving technology to move people, with limited ventures into package delivery, said co-founder and chief executive Ryan Chin.

"When the pandemic hit, what can we do? Flip it around - start with packages, groceries, prepared foods," Chin said of how he approached a major new project at a Washington, D.C. mixed-use development called the Yards.

Optimus Ride develops large self-driving vehicles capable of seating multiple passengers - or packages.

At a housing estate for senior citizens in Fairfield, California, for instance, the company is delivering three meals a day as well as any packages that arrive via mail to the homes of a "very vulnerable population", Chin said.

At the Yards, the company operates five days a week, delivering to residents of the development or within a 1.5-mile radius.

Every Wednesday is devoted to philanthropic work farther afield, delivering hot meals to low-income students who no longer have access to their schools, for instance, as well as bringing meal boxes with a week's worth of food to families in insecure housing.

The programme has been "a lifeline for our most vulnerable neighbors", said Christy Respress, executive director of the non-profit Pathways to Housing DC, which partners on the initiative.

For Chin, the increased use of autonomous vehicles will show local leaders what may have to change in urban areas to ease use of these services in future - around curb access, for instance.

"These vehicles have the power to change the streetscape in a very fundamental way - it will take some time, though."

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