Conquering the Last Mile

Droids could be better than drones for home deliveries

When it comes to the next frontier of home delivery, some of today’s big retailers—like Amazon, Google and Walmart—have their heads in the clouds as they work on using new airborne drones that would parachute parcels onto consumers’ doorsteps.

But many technology companies are bringing innovation efforts back to Earth and exploring the use of droids. The land-bound robots being developed will be able to deliver packages autonomously, which could prove to be a cheaper, safer option for large and small retailers to complete the most difficult leg of what can be a complicated supply chain circuit.

In recent years, organizations have been pouring R&D efforts into droids and drones to conquer "the last mile," what logistics experts call ecommerce’s final frontier. The last mile represents the most inefficient and problematic step in the delivery process: getting goods from a transportation hub to their final destination.

"Thirty to 40% of the cost of delivery comes in the last mile," said Allan Martinson, the chief operating officer of Starship Technologies, an organization creating delivery droids.1

Before ecommerce, many retailers didn’t concern themselves with the last mile because most consumers had to visit big box stores to buy their goods. These retailers put their efforts into reducing supply chain costs and streamlining logistics to their stores, which allowed them to sell cheaper goods.2

Now that ecommerce has expanded and become easier for consumers due to an evolving mobile device culture, costs and challenges of home delivery for retailers also have increased. To overcome these issues, instead of taking packages to the sky or attempting to automate large trucks, a few start-ups have started looking to droids to carry the weight of the last mile.3

Droids we’re looking for

The droids being developed by Starship Technologies, for example, are box-shaped containers on six wheels that weigh less than 35 pounds. They travel autonomously on sidewalks, can go up to four miles per hour, have battery packs that last two hours and carry about 20 pounds in their cargo holds—which also can be used to return items to a retailer.4

To deter thieves, Starship’s droids use electronic locks to secure packages and are equipped with cameras that transmit live video feeds. The cameras also allow robots to avoid sidewalk obstacles, such as pedestrians or fallen branches. In 2016, Starship’s droids covered 1,900 miles of testing in several countries.5

"We’ve tested it in snow, slush, ice and rain—you name it," Martinson said.6

He also said more than 120,000 pedestrians, including children, have encountered droids during testing, and no one has attempted to abuse them: "Children are curious, but they love it," he said.7

Other organizations, such as San Francisco-based Dispatch, also are developing droids, but all of them are competing against retail giants Amazon, Google and Walmart that seem to be favoring drones and autonomous vehicles as the best way to overcome the last mile.

Slow and steady

While Amazon and Walmart prepare to let flocks of delivery drones loose on the public, U.S. regulators are not—and they’re grounding most retailers’ big ideas for drones. The Federal Aviation Administration currently restricts drone airspace and does not allow a device to fly outside an operator’s line of site. This limits the delivery chain to tight, local areas.8

Because droids use sidewalks rather than roads (or airspace), they’re not bound by these restrictions. Drones and droids, however, are not the only technology being developed to navigate the last mile. Google, for example, is developing self-driving trucks that carry lockers a customer could unlock by using a text message.9

Proponents of droids, however, said they have advantages over these other delivery innovations being pursued. Droids are cheaper to build than autonomous trucks. Because they don’t travel at high rates of speed or can’t accidentally fall from the sky, they pose fewer safety concerns. Some experts also say droids could reduce pollution by decreasing the number of bulky delivery vehicles on the streets of congested cities.10

Developers of drones and autonomous vehicles have confined their testing to controlled environments. Droids, on the other hand, already have trudged through rain and snow to make their deliveries.11

Gur Kimchi, Amazon’s executive in charge of its Prime Air drone project, considered developing droids, but went with drones because he thought they were the fastest, safest and most economical option. Kimchi also said drones can serve a range of environments, while droids function best in urban settings. Investment research firm ARK Invest found Amazon could save $1 per package in delivery costs using drones.12

For last-mile costs, population density is a determining factor, which means there’s likely not going to be one technology that solves most of the challenges. A dense environment, such as in New York City, isn’t ideal for droids, according to Starship. The company said suburbs and smaller cities could be better suited for droids.13

It’s not just big-name retailers that could benefit from droids. Droids could be leased to small businesses that don’t have the resources to enter or fully take advantage of ecommerce.

Companies outside of retail also have started experimenting with droids. At its Cabana Bay Beach Resort in Florida, for example, Universal Orlando is testing the Savioke Personal Service Robot. Called "Relay," the cylindrical-shaped robot has a touch-screen display that can deliver toiletries, food, drinks or any other items that guests request from the front desk to their hotel rooms.14

Domino’s Pizza also experimented with droids in Australia with its Domino’s Robotic Unit (DRU) that autonomously delivers food. Using light detection and ranging technology and a GPS system, the four-wheeled carrier can deliver within a 20-mile radius on one charge, travel up to 12 miles per hour and carry 10 pizzas in a heated compartment.15

Unstructured environments

Designers of autonomous droids face several other challenges. Unlike adapting an autonomous vehicle to roads that have firm rules and delineated lanes, droid designers are dealing with sidewalks, which they refer to as "unstructured environments."

Not only can there be pedestrians walking, for example, they also could be running, rollerblading, walking their dogs—or walking three dogs. In addition, there could be garbage on the sidewalk, or the sidewalk could change width or be disrupted by a tree’s roots.16

"The pedestrian environment is very cultural," said Matt Delaney, an engineer who worked on autonomous cars and lunar rovers and is now starting his own robotic delivery firm, Marble, in San Francisco. "If you monitor people over many long repetitions in testing, a robot can learn the best routes."17

There may not be one technology best-suited to defeat the last mile of delivery. Instead, it could require a combination of them, including keeping humans involved in the process. In January, for example, Mercedes-Benz partnered with Starship to create delivery vans filled with droids that can be loaded with retail items and dispatched by a driver to deliver packages to consumers from a central hub area that’s decided by the van’s delivery system.18

If humans are taken out of the delivery process, however, will consumers care about receiving goods from a robot rather than a person?

In December 2016, a Turkish restaurant in London became the world’s first to use robot delivery.

"I’ve got a Roomba robot [vacuum cleaner] in my flat, so it’s not that out of the ordinary," said one customer after a droid delivered her food. "I guess it was less personal than a human, but to be honest, I’m not really looking to make friends with my delivery guy."19

—compiled by Tyler Gaskill, contributing editor


  1. Jeremy Kahn, "Droids Not Drones Are the Future of E-Commerce Deliveries," Bloomberg, April 18, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/qp-bloomberg-droids-deliver.
  2. Chris Petersen, "Droids vs. Drones: The War to Win the ‘Last Mile’ of Retail," customerthink.com, April 29, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/qp-cust-think-last-mile.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Kahn, "Droids Not Drones Are the Future of E-Commerce Deliveries," see reference 1.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. David Kirkpatrick, "DC First U.S. City to Test Droid Food Delivery," RetailDIVE Jan. 12, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/qp-retail-dive-droid-food.
  9. Kahn, "Droids Not Drones Are the Future of E-Commerce Deliveries," see reference 1.
  10. The Economist, "Pedestrians and Robots Will Soon Share the Pavements," Feb. 18, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/qp-the-economist-robots.
  11. Kahn, "Droids Not Drones Are the Future of E-Commerce Deliveries," see reference 1.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Deanna Ferrante, "Universal Is Testing a Room Service Droid at Cabana Bay Beach Resort," Orlando Weekly, http://tinyurl.com/qp-orlando-droid-room.
  15. Jenn Gidman, "Domino’s Now Has a Pizza- Delivery Droid," Newser.com, March 18, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/qp-newser-pizza-droid.
  16. "Pedestrians and Robots Will Soon Share the Pavements," reference 10.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Colton Lochhead, "Droids Deployed by a Delivery Van Could Step Up in Parcel Deliveries," Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jan. 5, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/qp-vegas-droid-parcel.
  19. Alexi Duggins, "Robochops: On the Road With a Food-Delivery Droid," The Guardian, Dec. 4, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/qp-guardian-robochops.

World Conference Speakers Announced

Event organizers are finalizing details for the ASQ World Conference on Quality and Improvement (WCQI) May 1-3 in Charlotte, NC.

Keynote speakers scheduled for the event are:

  • Jeremy Gutsche, founder of trendhunter.com, a popular website dedicated to identifying trends. He is also the author of Better and Faster: The Proven Path to Unstoppable Ideas (Crown Business, 2015).

  • Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist who works at understanding the mind-body connection. She is also the author of Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It (Avery, 2016).
  • Celeste Headlee, a national journalist and host of "On Second Thought," a radio show on Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. She is also the author of Heard Mentality: An
    A to Z Guide to Taking Your Radio Show or Podcast From Idea to Hit
    (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2016).

Visit http://asq.org/wcqi for more information about the keynote speakers and other activities planned at the three-day conference.

Food Safety

The International Association for Food Protection will host its annual meeting July 9-12 in Tampa, FL. Sessions at the event will cover current and emerging food safety issues, the latest science related to food safety, and innovative solutions to new and recurring problems. www.foodprotection.org/annualmeeting.

Tune In

The latest ASQTV episode examines the management concepts of Theory X and Theory Y, and teaches the ABCs of ensuring successful change. Visit http://videos.asq.org to access the full video library.

Government Faces Efficiency Barriers

Only 8% of government workers said the U.S. federal government is running very efficiently, and shifting priorities and fears of job loss pose major obstacles to making improvements, according to a recent ASQ survey.

Thirty-one percent of those surveyed said the biggest challenge to implementing quality improvement methods in the federal government is the shifting of strategies, goals and priorities.

Mark Abrams, chair of ASQ’s Government Division, said the federal government has a great opportunity to reduce waste and, as a direct result, to decrease the burden on the taxpayer by using quality tools.

The survey also explored some of the challenges organizations in the government sector face when implementing quality methods. The biggest hurdles include:

  • Overcoming organizational fears about the impact cost-cutting will have on jobs and project funding (19% of respondents).
  • A lack of awareness about quality methods, such as lean Six Sigma, and how they can benefit the organization (14% of respondents).
  • Viewing quality improvement as a temporary trend (12% of respondents).

Other results from the survey, conducted in January with ASQ members from government areas including defense, healthcare, military, transportation, finance and agriculture, can be found at http://asq.org/newsroom/news-releases/2017/20170302-federal-government-faces-challenges.html.

New @ ASQ

LEAN BOOK RELEASED The Joy of Lean was released by ASQ Quality Press. In the new book, author Dodd Starbird shows leaders how to cultivate a positive lean culture of excellence that creates value for customers, profitable growth for businesses, sustainable cost reduction and fulfilling jobs for employees. The 176-page book has a list price of $35 but can be purchased by ASQ members for $21. http://tinyurl.com/asq-book-joy-lean.

MEDAL NOMINATIONS ASQ is seeking nominations for its Feigenbaum Medal, which recognizes quality professionals 35 years old or younger who display leadership, professionalism and potential in quality. The medal is named for Armand V. Feigenbaum, a quality pioneer who died in 2014. Nominations are due Oct. 1. http://asq.org/about-asq/awards/feigenbaum.html.

Innovation Group

The U.S. Technical Advisory Group (TAG) to International Organization for Standardization/Technical Committee 279 on innovation management is looking for members to take part in developing standards on innovation terminology, tools and methods, and assessment. ASQ is the administrator for TAG 279. For more information, email standards@asq.org.

Getting to Know …

Eric Alden

Current position: Reliability engineer and run cost analyst at Xerox Corp. in Canandaigua, NY.

Education: Master’s degree in quality and applied statistics from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York.

What’s the best career advice you ever received? After the company I worked for was shut down, I was willing to do almost anything for companies with job openings. During one job interview, the interviewer told me that he couldn’t tell what I was about. He advised me to identify my passion so that it would "ooze out all over the desk of the interviewer." After identifying and continually honing my passion for quality and applied statistics, I have thankfully achieved and maintained steady employment.

Have you ever authored an article? I presented on Excel and Minitab data analysis techniques at the 2014 ASQ World Conference on Quality and Improvement.

Are you active in ASQ? Yes. In addition to achieving several ASQ certifications, I’m active in the Rochester section, having served as chair, treasurer and executive board member over the years. I’ve also participated in the ASQ-certified reliability engineer and Six Sigma Master Black Belt exam processes.

What was the last book you read? The English-version of The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas, even though I’m working on my French language skills. I also enjoy reading New Yorker magazine for its variety of articles.

Who has influenced you the most? Joseph M. Juran was my biggest influence. Early in my career, we were forced to watch hours of his lectures, and something resonated inside me. I met him once and still keep his autographed picture on my desk. RIT’s Center for Quality and Applied Statistics had great instructors. Joseph Voelkel, Tom and Ann Barker, and Ed Schilling were great influencers early in my education. Ernest Fokoue is a strong motivating factor for learning advanced data analysis techniques.

What was the last movie you saw? "Hidden Figures," a fascinating movie about the NASA program in the early 1960s and the contributions made and challenges overcome by brilliant people.

Any recent honors or awards? Elected to ASQ’s 2017 class of fellows.

Personal: Married for nearly 34 years, two grown daughters.

What do you do for fun? I love being outdoors and spending time with family. Skiing, sailing and hiking with our dogs are my favorite activities.

What is your quality take? Becoming one with your data is a beautiful thing.

ASQ Announces 2018 Board Candidates

ASQ has announced the candidates for the 2018 board of directors. This time, two candidates are vying for the office of chair-elect. Here is the complete list of candidates:

  • Past chair: Eric A. Hayler, lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, BMW Manufacturing, and principal, Hayler Group, Boiling Springs, SC.
  • Chair: Elmer K. Corbin, director and project executive, IBM Watson Client Success, IBM Corp., McKinney, TX.
  • Chair-elect (through the ASQ Nominating Committee): Benito Flores, dean, school of engineering and technologies, Universidad de Monterrey, San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mexico.
  • Chair-elect (through petition): Geoff Vining, professor of statistics, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.
  • Treasurer: Francisco Santos, global quality,
    Metalsa, Mexico.
  • Director: Scott Moeller, director of quality engineering and Six Sigma Black Belt, Baxter International, Round Lake, IL.
  • Director: Paulo Sampaio, professor of quality and organizational excellence, University of Minho in Portugal, and visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

Election rules do not allow candidates to campaign or have others campaign for them, but proxies and position statements for each candidate running for a contested office were sent to all regular members earlier this year. Election results will be announced on April 30 during ASQ’s annual business meeting, to be held in conjunction with ASQ’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement in Charlotte, NC.

Facelifts for Websites

Two quality-related organizations have revamped their websites.

Juran Global recently launched its new website and branding package to modernize the organization’s image and digital offerings.

Earlier this year, the American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS) launched its new website to improve accessibility and navigation. The new website also includes a refresh of the APICS Supply Chain Channel, an online community where APICS members can interact and share knowledge.

For more information, visit www.juran.com and http://tinyurl.com/apics-new-site.

Baldrige Resources Released

The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently released the Baldrige Cybersecurity Excellence Builder, a voluntary self-assessment tool that lets organizations better understand and improve the effectiveness of their cybersecurity risk management efforts. www.nist.gov/baldrige/products-services/baldrige-cybersecurity-initiative.

NIST also released the 2017-2018 Baldrige Excellence Builders. These documents, based on the Baldrige framework and criteria, help organizations assess themselves against the most important features of organizational performance excellence. www.nist.gov/baldrige/products-services/baldrige-excellence-builder.

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