Chinese e-commerce giant taps robots to improve delivery service

A man riding an Ofo shared bicycle on a road in Beijing takes pictures of a delivery robot that can carry up to 300kg of goods, on June 18, 2018.
A man riding an Ofo shared bicycle on a road in Beijing takes pictures of a delivery robot that can carry up to 300kg of goods, on June 18, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Dozens of small driverless vehicles fitted with express pickup containers took to the streets near Beijing on Monday (June 18).

The delivery robots from the Shangdi delivery station in northwest Beijing's Haidian district were launched to improve delivery service and reduce costs.

The red and white automated robots stood in a shining line around the Shangdi distribution centre, one of e-commerce giant JD's main delivery stations.

The driverless vehicles delivered 30 boxes of products, their top speed reaching 15km per hour. The robots, which automatically stop at red traffic lights, can carry up to 300kg of goods.

The deliveries "covered most of the residential areas near the distribution station", said Ms Yang Jing, general manager of the autonomous vehicle centre at JD's artificial intelligence technologies research department.

Data on the machines were already on record with the Beijing Commission of Transportation's local transport department before they took to the road, Ms Yang said.

The robots, driving in the non-motor-vehicle lanes, pick up goods left at local distribution centres by couriers. Navigating by radar and sensors, the robots avoid barriers and pedestrians, respond accordingly to traffic signals and make their way to the delivery sites.

"We are using delivery robots to reduce the human costs of traditional delivery service," Ms Yang said. "At the same time, it improves transportation efficiency."

A surveillance centre monitors the vehicles' whereabouts through data and video the robots transmit.

JD has already employed delivery machines in several closed areas, such as college campuses and closed-off industrial communities.

In June last year, robots delivered packages on the campus of Renmin University.

JD plans to put more than 100 delivery robots in use in more than 20 Chinese and foreign cities, such as Shanghai, Tianjin, Xi'an and Bangkok.

The company said on Tuesday that delivery efficiency will be greatly improved, but it gave no details on how robots will be integrated in the process.

Mr Liu Daizong, China transport programme director at the World Resources Institute, said more guidelines are needed on how to operate unmanned vehicles on public streets.

Especially if such vehicles are heavily loaded, "crashes on the road could have huge consequences for pedestrians and cause damage", Mr Liu said.

Mr Liu, an expert member of the Beijing Commission of Transportation, said that so far, Beijing has only set standards for unmanned vehicle road tests, and detailed guidelines need to be worked out.

"Standards still need to be tested, and less weight (than the 300kg maximum) might be the safe option for the delivery robots," he added.

Retail giant Amazon has also been using automated delivery robots, starting with drones at the end of 2016 in Britain to improve the transport efficiency.