In Virus-Stricken City, Delivery Bots Go Where Humans Can’t

In Wuhan, the coronavirus outbreak that now has sickened more than 43,000 and claimed more than 1,000 lives in China and around the globe has shuttered stores, schools and businesses. With travel and transportation bans instituted to curb the epidemic, housebound Chinese have few options to get the necessities they need—but e-commerce giant has found a way to keep business moving.

The coronavirus crisis, it turns out, is proving the case for autonomous robotic vehicles.

At a time when medical face masks are a common sight and human-to-human contact is virtually verboten across China, autonomous delivery bots are showing up in a big way in Wuhan’s e-commerce last mile.

The city of 11 million people, JD said in a blog post, is playing host to a fleet of unmanned vehicles that reduce person-to-person contact while ensuring residents confined to their homes can shop online for essential supplies during the public health emergency. The company’s automated warehouses, which leverage artificial intelligence, computer vision and machine learning to operate independently around the clock with virtually no need for employees, have seen daily orders increase from 600,000 to 1 million between Jan. 24 and Feb. 2, JD said.

Autonomous delivery robots have been viewed as a solution to reducing last-mile costs, but the unusual circumstances around the viral outbreak have brought the bots’ other upsides to the fore.

Globally, the market for these robotic vehicles is expected to achieve a combined annual growth rate of 16 percent by 2026, per a Premium Market Insights report published Tuesday. Sean Scott, vice president of Amazon Scout, described the e-commerce giant’s in-trial delivery bots as injecting “even more sustainability and convenience” into the final mile when the vehicles took to the streets of the Seattle suburbs last year.


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