Delivery by Droid: Why it’s not happening just yet

Logistics challenges are blocking opportunities for autonomous delivery in U.S. cities

Robots delivering packages, groceries and pizza were all over the news this year. Many watched in awe video footage of Kroger’s toaster-like robot cars delivering food to the front doors of their customers at what seemed like a big step forward for technology. And it was.

But the reality is that the path to widespread autonomous delivery, particularly in cities, is complicated. There are challenges that need to be overcome before it moves from a novel oddity to a commonplace convenience.

Here are some of the most significant, practical obstacles that are calling for solutions:

Insufficient urban planning

We’ve all seen it — a traffic officer ticketing a UPS driver who is double- or triple-parked during rush hour outside of an apartment building.

Well, it’s symptomatic of a bigger problem — local governments have largely not adapted to the growth of e-commerce and direct-to-consumer deliveries, and thus neither has urban planning. The loading zones of yore do not account for the volume of same-day delivery packages today.

Smart urban planning, paired with technology, however, could ease the problem. Municipal transportation departments already have real-time sensors, for example, allowing them to see how, when and where traffic is flowing. If they use this data to experiment with directing deliveries during off-peak hours, test out congestion pricing and more flexible parking spots and loading zones, it could improve the flow of the supply chain.

Autonomous deliveries, on the other hand, add an additional layer of complexity. For robots to communicate with each other and to safely — think immediately — read the traffic for lights, cars and pedestrians, they need an incredibly strong internet connection. For this to happen, loggerheads between cities, 5G providers and the federal government over the creation of urban 5G coverage have to be resolved.

Air traffic control

It’s easier to deliver by autonomous drone than by street-dwelling robot. Drones don’t need to worry about reading traffic lights like autonomous delivery vans, nor do they have to navigate clunky sidewalks like delivery bots, which face many more unpredictable obstacles in their path.

But drones face another set of challenges — and they have little to do with their technical capacity.

Although there are many companies developing solutions, there’s currently no standard or accepted drone traffic control system that can safely integrate delivery vehicles with planes and the landscape of airports and buildings.

There’s also some unanswered questions. Where can a drone land safely and deliver packages? Most apartment buildings have mailrooms, not landing pads. Can a commercial drone fly directly over your apartment on the way to your neighbor’s home? In other words, who owns the sky above your property? That’s still up in the air.

The need for AI workers

It’s true that robots are doing, and will be doing, a lot more of the work that labor has done. Unloading, sorting, delivering are all becoming automated. The problem is, while there are a lot of robots around, there just aren’t enough available workers who have the artificial intelligence (AI) skillset to oversee them. Although there are now many free online courses teaching AI and machine learning programming, consider that, according to a 2017 Ernst & Young survey, 56% of senior AI professionals said the “lack of talent and qualified workers is the greatest single barrier to the implementation of AI across business operations.”

With the right mix of engineering and computer science skills, talented individuals will still be deeply involved in the autonomous delivery process. Which, if it overcomes its challenges and moves towards solutions, could usher us into a new era previously reserved for science fiction novels.

Greg Matter is a Managing Director for JLL in the Southwest region. He can be reached at

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