Robots could help tackle growing urban freight problem


The use of robots for last mile deliveries could address the problems of urban freight distribution but it needs support from local authorities, according to a new report.

The Independent Transport Commission's (ITC) report on urban freight distribution in the UK comes against a backdrop of growing deliveries from vans in urban areas due to the increasing demands of internet shopping and door-to-door deliveries, leading to greater congestion and air pollution.

A Starship robot in action

The report focuses on innovations in urban freight practices in London, following the 2012 Olympic Games, which forced the transport and logistics sectors to rethink supply chains.

In particular, it looked at the potential for retiming deliveries, urban consolidation centres (UCCs), and ‘addressing the last mile through new technologies’, highlighting a new initiative led by Starship Technologies that uses robot vehicles to make food deliveries in Greenwich.

The electric powered robots are designed to operate 99% autonomously at pedestrian speeds on pavements, delivering groceries, food and other goods within a maximum delivery time of 30 minutes. They began commercial trials in the UK with Just Eat in July 2016

The robot fleets are based at hubs where they are serviced and recharge, and can operate within approximately a two-mile radius.

As well as being zero emission at the point of use, Starship says the robots could deliver social benefits, particularly in an ageing society, enabling less mobile people to enjoy independent home living for longer, and ‘eliminating pointless car journeys’.

The study also looked at a UCC set up by Camden where deliveries are channelled through a central warehouse and sorted into fewer vehicles for the final leg of their journey. The project recently managed to break even.

However, the ITS argues that: ‘It is clear that without some form of public financial support, UCCs will continue to be slow to implement and too small to have a substantial impact. Local authorities seem unlikely to fund such initiatives unless they are pushed into it by central government but this clashes with the devolution agenda.’

Another case study looked at a successful project by DHL and Camden Council to retime deliveries to a clothes shop on a busy street.

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