robot delivery

Autonomous Robots Can Home Deliver Groceries in China, But Will It Work In Australia?

4 min read

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These days, there is a robot for nearly everything, including home delivery of pizzas! But should we be worried about getting too reliant on them? Or should we just sit back and ride with them? There’s no denying they look like a tonne of fun. And now they may just take over our streets as we demand robot delivery of our supermarket hauls.

A Chinese company called Shanghai Ecar Technology want to break into the Australian market with a range of bots designed to make life easier. They have street cleaning bots, vending machines on wheels, security bots, and they also have delivery bots.

While most people think of delivery drones that fly in the sky as the obvious choice to deliver your potatoes and frozen peas, in China they do things a little differently to that. They have worked out a way to send delivery bots along footpaths, filled with supermarket goodness. These little bots self-drive to people’s houses. Then the hungry human collects the food and then the little bot returns to base.

George Cao from the Shanghai Ecar Technology Co told us that they are looking to break into the Australian market with their products, after success in China. Supermarkets that have signed up include JingDong, Alibaba, Cainiao and others. Cao says, “We have sold more than 1000 units of the autonomous driving vehicle.”

Australian robot delivery

Despite their popularity in China, there is a pending problem here. If there is no one to accept the delivery, says Cao, “the autonomous vehicle will wait a moment and leave. It will be back next day.” Perhaps Australian customers won’t be so happy without instant gratification.

Cao says that the most popular robots they sell are the street sweeper robot and the home delivery robot. While this has worked really well in China, the idea may not translate to Australia.

This model in a different form has been tested in Australia, and things didn’t go well. According to Professor Gary Mortimer, Faculty of Business & Law, School of Advertising, Marketing & PR at QUT, we’ve seen other players attempt to enter the market with either drones or some form of robotic mechanism.

“In Queensland there was a trial with Coles delivering small urgent groceries quickly to somebody’s house via a drone. I think it’s quite novel. Will it take off? I suspect not. The other one that trialled, for Domino’s Pizza, was a little robot that actually toured around and delivered your pizzas; it was a road-based bot. Rather than having a guy ride around on a bike, they just drop the pizza into a little robot which zips around the neighborhood. You open it up and take out your nice warm pizza. Sounds good but it had too many operational challenges around it.”

The Domino’s bot, called Dom, is still being used in experiments however, and the idea isn’t dead quite yet.


Professor Mortimer said, “How do you get a drone or a small robot to wander around paths into a lift? I live near the airport which means there’s air space that you can’t fly into. So there are some challenges around it. And then of course, there’s weather challenges that you know, if I suddenly want some groceries delivered and there’s a storm outside, what impact will that have on my deliveries when they arrive?”

So what does Professor Mortimer see happening with the Chinese bots? “I see a lot of operational challenges with that model. So I’ve ordered my groceries and I wait around  to see if it gets here safely without getting run over by a truck. But what if I happen to not to be home? It just turns around, takes my groceries away and then how do I get them back? The whole idea of home delivery is the convenience of actually having it delivered to your house.”

Home delivery autonomous bot. Image: Shanghai Ecar Technology

Robot delivery and supermarkets

While Professor Mortimer thinks it is a novel idea, the service that large supermarkets currently are offering in metro areas is already a very slick operation. “Big players like Coles and Woolworths are already working with other partners to expedite delivery in metro areas in under 60 minutes. Also Coles are teaming up with Uber to get your groceries delivered really quickly. It seems to work. Speed is certainly becoming the currency now, more so than price.”

While people can wait several days for shoes or clothes to arrive after online pruchases, when it comes to food, “You want it now and consume it now.”

Professor Mortimer says that the cost of scaling the robots could be too challenging, and the insurance attached to a robot driving around suburbs could be too high. “Getting around the streets in Sydney or Melbourne, like getting through Darlinghurst, it’s just crazy footpaths. There’s a lot of obstacles that little robots will need to deal with. There’s not a lot of profit margin on food and groceries unfortunately.”

Street sweepers may be a go

The Professor does think the street sweepers might be a runner. “With Brisbane City Council, the sweepers are human operated.” With staff shortages across the country, we may need to get good with the Chinese robots.

So anyway here at The Chainsaw, we would like to have our lunch delivered by bot thanks. Also, where is the bot that will take you home after 4 margaritas in five-inch heels? Just saying.