Are Robots Last-Mile Delivery’s Future?


To provide retailers with an automated option for last-mile deliveries, shipping carriers are entering the world of robotics technology. FedEx, for instance, recently unveiled its FedEx SameDay Bot concept, which the carrier said is in development with DEKA Development & Research Corp. along with DEKA Founder Dean Kamen (of Segway fame). The idea behind the bot is to let merchants accept customer orders and deliver them to customers on the very same day.

FedEx Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Brie Carere said in an announcement for the technology, “The FedEx SameDay Bot is an innovation designed to change the face of local delivery and help retailers efficiently address their customers’ rising expectations.” Carere continued, “The bot represents a milestone in our ongoing mission to solve the complexities and expense of same-day, last-mile delivery for the growing eCommerce market in a manner that is safe and environmentally friendly.” According to the announcement, the company plans to experiment with the bot in markets such as Memphis, Tenn. — “pending final city approvals.”

As it stands, the carrier says it offers a SameDay City service in 32 markets and 1,900 cities with the help of uniformed employees and FedEx vehicles. The company said that the bot, in turn, would complement its FedEx SameDay City service and it is “collaborating” with retailers such as Target, Pizza Hut, Walgreens, Walmart, Lowe’s and AutoZone. Moreover, the company claims that more than six in 10 shoppers — or 60 percent — live within three miles of a brick-and-mortar store, which shows “the opportunity for on-demand, hyper-local delivery.”

In a web post, Target Chief Operating Officer John Mulligan said, “We have more than 1,800 stores in neighborhoods across the country, where we’re already offering local shipping, pickup and delivery services. And because most guests live within 10 miles of a Target, we’re always looking for new ways to use our stores to meet their needs.” Target, after all, has rolled out and expanded its curbside pickup services. And, last year, the company said it planned to ramp up its delivery efforts with Shipt (a firm it acquired in 2017).

Mulligan said in the post that the prototype for the bot “presents a lot of interesting possibilities.” He said the device can work in inclement weather like snow and rain as well as on stairs, hilly terrain, roads and sidewalks. As a result, the bot can make deliveries right to the doorsteps of consumers. In addition, Mulligan noted that the bot has compartments that can be configured “for a variety of needs.”

The Robot Delivery Landscape 

FedEx is hardly the only company to test out robotic delivery: In January, Amazon unveiled a new product called Scout, which was designed to deliver packages right to consumers’ doors. The device is a six-wheeled robot that is about the size of a small cooler, and the company said it would be used in a Snohomish County, Washington neighborhood. In a January blog post, the company said, “At Amazon, we continually invest in new technologies to benefit customers. We’ve been hard at work developing a new, fully-electric delivery system — Amazon Scout — designed to safely get packages to customers using autonomous delivery devices.”

At the time, Amazon said that it would begin with six Scouts working Monday through Friday during daylight hours. While the robots will follow their routes autonomously, they were to be accompanied by an Amazon employee (at least for a while). The company also said at the time, “We developed Amazon Scout at our research and development lab in Seattle, ensuring the devices can safely and efficiently navigate around pets, pedestrians and anything else in their path.” It was also reported that Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said, “We are delighted to welcome Amazon Scout into our community.”

Beyond suburban neighborhoods, robots have been making deliveries on college campuses. Students, staff and faculty at Virginia’s George Mason University can order food and drinks with the help of robotics firm Starship Technologies and food service company Sodexo. By tapping into a Starship Deliveries app, users can order items from retailers such as Blaze Pizza and Dunkin’, suggesting that robotic technology is becoming an emerging method of last-mile delivery for quick-service restaurants (QSRs) and other retailers alike.