The idea of robots freely moving around cities has long been a staple of science fiction. And though it is cliché to say, that vision of science fiction is closer than ever to becoming actual reality.
One area that presents major opportunities for robotics is food delivery. We may still be a ways away from full-sized autonomous vehicles shuttling humans around, but robots and autonomous vehicles are already delivering pizzas, burritos, and groceries around towns and colleges in the U.S.
Allowing robots to handle the last mile of these deliveries could do much to make restaurant and grocery delivery faster, enable those deliveries to occur around the clock, and bring down both labor costs and prices for consumers. Self-driving delivery vehicles could also reduce congestion on city streets and bring more equity to our food system.
But the biggest factors currently driving the acceleration of autonomous delivery vehicle adoption aren’t technological. Rather, like so many other aspects of our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic is increasing the demand for both grocery and restaurant deliveries and fueling the desire for fewer person-to-person interactions in the process.
Market research firm, Second Measure, reports meal delivery sales grew 125 percent year-over-year in September of 2020. With people forced to stay at home more, 34 percent of U.S. consumers ordered from a delivery service, up from 26 percent during the same time last year.
Grocery delivery also saw surges in demand, particularly in the early days of the pandemic. While not all of the record-setting grocery e-commerce sales were delivery (curbside pickup was also a popular option), they made up a large portion of those sales. In April, grocery delivery service Instacart commanded 57 percent of the grocery e-commerce market.
Robots, especially for one-off meals and small basket orders, have the potential to expand delivery options. They are small and nimble and can run all day, opening up new opportunities for retailers and restaurants. Grand View Research estimates that the global autonomous last mile delivery market size will hit $84.9 million by 2027 (includes both drone and ground-based robots).
Before we can get to that idealized vision of delivery, there are still a number of challenges to overcome. State and city regulators need to establish rules and standards around infrastructure and safety while simultaneously maintaining revenues that might otherwise be lost.
Though fleets of autonomous vehicles winding their way across city streets and bringing last-minute lattes is already happening, their mainstream presence in our lives is far from inevitable. This report will give readers an overview of the current state of food delivery by robotic vehicles, the key players in the space, as well as challenges and opportunities for the sector.
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