Pandemic forces Chinese tech behemoths to deploy more courier robots.

As the pandemic drives demand for contactless services, Alibaba, Meituan, and JD.com all plan to add more than 1,000 robots to their delivery teams in the coming year.

According to company executives, over 2,000 robots will be in use by 2022, representing a fourfold increase over current levels. Another advantage for the companies is that the costs of manufacturing robots are decreasing.

China’s millions of couriers continue to deliver packages for as little as 3 yuan (0.47 cents). Companies, on the other hand, have been investigating the use of drones or box-like robots on wheels since 2013, as a labour shortage has worsened since the outbreak.

In order to meet increasing demand and deadlines, Beijing has also ordered firms to provide couriers with rest periods.

According to Meituan’s chief scientist, Xia Huaxia, the COVID-19 pandemic has given the company’s robot rollout plans a “significant boost.”

Instead of launching its robot service at the end of the year as planned, the food-delivery behemoth did so in February 2020, when infections were high in Beijing.

JD.com’s chief scientist for its autonomous driving unit, KONG QI, has stated that the company intends to launch a robot service. The service was supposed to go live in Beijing in June 2020, but due to the closure of Wuhan in central China, it began using it in February.

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN LIMITATIONS AND OPPORTUNITIES

Despite this, humans outnumber robots in the delivery industry due to limitations such as the inability of robots to climb stairs. As a result, robots can only be used in certain areas, such as residential areas or school districts.

Even less time-sensitive items, such as packages, are delivered by robots rather than humans.

“The efficiency is low for office areas where people order a lot of food and parcels, but the vehicle’s capacity is limited,” Zhang Ji, 25, said as she went to pick up a package delivered by an autonomous vehicle near her Beijing office. Zhang Ji was discussing the vehicle’s capacity.

Robot supporters, on the other hand, argue that robots will provide long-term benefits such as lower delivery costs for the last mile. According to University of Michigan researchers, fully and partially automated vehicles could cut city delivery costs by 1040 percent.

There has been a price reduction

According to Wang Gang, Alibaba’s vice president of autonomous driving, the cost of building robots has decreased as the price of lidar sensors, which are used to measure distances and render images around vehicles, has decreased.

According to Alibaba and JD.com, the cost of producing their robots is less than 250,000 yuan ($38,662) per unit.

JD.com intends to increase its robot workforce from 200 to 1,000 by the end of 2021.  Meituan expects to spend around $40,000 on each of its robots this year, rising to more than $60,000 by 2020.

Xia predicts that by 2025, Meituan’s robot will be available for less than 200,000 yuan and will have been mass-produced in over 10,000 units.

Meituan currently employs approximately 100 delivery robots

Other countries have experimented with using robots to deliver packages. Yandex (YNDX.O) of Russia and GrubHub, an online food delivery service, plan to use driverless robots to deliver food to American college campuses.


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