Robot Vehicles Make Contactless Deliveries Amid Coronavirus Quarantine

For the past two months, the vegetables have arrived on the back of a robot. That’s how 16 communities in Zibo, in eastern China, have received fresh produce during the pandemic. The robot is an autonomous van that uses lidars, cameras, and deep-learning algorithms to drive itself, carrying up to 1,000 kilograms on its cargo compartment.

The unmanned vehicle provides a “contactless” alternative to regular , helping reduce the risk of person-to-person infection, says Professor Ming Liu, a computer scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and cofounder of Unity Drive Innovation, or UDI, the Shenzhen-based startup that developed the self-driving van.

Since February, UDI has been operating a small fleet of vehicles in Zibo and two other cities, Suzhou and Shenzhen, where they deliver meal boxes to checkpoint workers and spray disinfectant near hospitals. Combined, the vans have made more than 2,500 autonomous trips, often encountering busy traffic conditions despite the lockdown.

“It’s like Uber for packages—you use your phone to call a robot to pick up and deliver your boxes,” Professor Liu told IEEE Spectrum in an interview via Zoom.

Even before the pandemic, package shipments had been skyrocketing in China and elsewhere. Alibaba founder Jack Ma has said that his company is preparing to handle 1 billion packages per day. With the logistics sector facing major labor shortages, a 2016 McKinsey report predicted that autonomous vehicles will deliver 80 percent of parcels within 10 years.

That’s the future UDI is betting on. Unlike robocars developed by Waymo, Cruise, Zoox, and others, UDI’s vehicles are designed to transport goods, not people. They are similar to those of Nuro, a Silicon Valley startup, and Neolix, based in Beijing, which has deployed 50 robot vans in 10 Chinese cities to do mobile delivery and disinfection service.

Professor Liu, an IEEE Senior Member and director of the Intelligent Autonomous Driving Center at HKUST, is unfazed by the competition. He says UDI is ready to operate its vehicles on public roads thanks to the real-world experience it has gained from a string of recent projects. These involve large companies testing the robot vans inside their industrial parks.

One of them is Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn. Since late 2018, it has used UDI vans to transport electronic parts and other items within its vast Shenzhen campus where some 200,000 workers reside. The robots have to navigate labyrinthine routes while avoiding an unpredictable mass of pedestrians, bicycles, and trucks.


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