Smart letterboxes to be trialled at two Clementi Housing Board blocks

Residents will scan a QR code generated by the SingPost app to retrieve their items from the machine. ST PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

SINGAPORE - Residents of Block 202 Clementi Avenue 6 will soon be able to receive notification on their mobile phones when mail has arrived, negating the need to periodically check their letterbox.

For the next year in fact, they will not need to check the letterbox at all, as mail will instead be collected from a central vending machine-style unit at the foot of the block.

They will be the first in Singapore to try out a smart letterbox system that SingPost envisions may one day replace traditional units.

Called PostPal, each machine will store mail for an entire housing block, with items auto-sorted into storage slots.

Instead of using a key to unlock their designated letterbox, residents will scan a QR code generated by the SingPost app to retrieve their items from the machine.

Using the app, residents can also be notified of mail delivery, check the number of items pending collection and authorise others to collect mail on their behalf.

PostPal features significant improvements that will reduce misdeliveries and alleviate the postman's burden, SingPost said on Thursday (Dec 3) in announcing a year-long public trial.

PostPal has an autosort function, which means the postmen will only need to load all the mail into the machine without sorting them out individually.

Mail addressed to households that are part of the trial will be affixed with a data matrix code - similar to a QR code - that will be scanned by PostPal for sorting and notification.

The trial will start with two Housing Board blocks in Clementi; residents of Block 202 Clementi Avenue 6 will begin using the system on Dec 18, while those in Block 205 will follow in the weeks ahead.

The two blocks, which serve about 100 households each, were chosen as they are representative of the average mail profile of public housing in Singapore, SingPost said.

PostPal is a newer iteration of the smart letterbox prototype unveiled by SingPost last year. It was developed in collaboration with PBA Group, a robotics and automation firm headquartered in Singapore.

The storage modules in PostPal units can be customised to the mail profile of each individual block, SingPost said.

A block that sees consistently high e-commerce volumes, for example, can have smaller modules in its PostPal replaced with larger ones that can accommodate bigger postal packages, it said. This configuration can also be done during the year-end online sale peak season, it added.

Mr Edmund Tan, vice-president of SingPost's innovation team, demonstrating how to use PostPal. ST PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

SingPost declined to reveal the cost of the pilot.

The postal service provider has said that traditional letterbox units are not equipped to meet the growing demands of e-commerce, especially as smaller items are often sent by mail instead of courier services, which can be more expensive.

Mr Vincent Phang, SingPost's Singapore head and chief executive of postal services, told The Straits Times in an interview in September that the accelerated growth of e-commerce prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic has made the need to revamp the postal infrastructure more urgent.

It is an opportune time to test the smart letterbox system as demand for contactless deliveries and Singaporeans' comfort with scanning QR codes have increased, he noted then.

Mr Phang told the media at PostPal's unveiling on Thursday that the system will provide added security as only postmen will have access to the machine's mail deposit, and each machine will be outfitted with a closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera.

SingPost will be able to monitor each machine's utilisation rate, he said, adding that the likelihood of a unit reaching its capacity is slim. PostPals will also have back-up power to survive outages.

Asked about accessibility for the less tech-savvy, he said that those without smartphones can use a one-time password sent by SMS to retrieve their mail.

SingPost and grassroots volunteers will be engaging residents in the lead up to PostPal's launch, Mr Phang said, adding that public acceptance will be key to the system's success.

"We do acknowledge that there may be some may be some apprehension for some people at the start, but we will work through those issues."

The PostPal trial has the potential to transform the letterbox infrastructure in Housing Board blocks from a "simple, letter-oriented lock-and-key structure to a cutting-edge digital system with capabilities beyond mail delivery", Mr Phang said.

It will also significantly alleviate SingPost's labour constraints, he added.

Mr Amrin Amin, strategy director of PBA Robotics, described PostPal as a "potential game changer".

"We have hopes to see how we can scale this up across Singapore and how these ideas can be used not just in the residential setting, but in commercial settings and in other places," he said.

The PostPal public trial will be progressively rolled out to more precincts including one in the North, subject to the performance of the units in Clementi as well as approval from the authorities, SingPost said.

Data and feedback gathered during the trial will be used to finetune the smart letterbox system, as well as to inform the next phase of SingPost's transformation plans, it added.

Mr Foo Kia Jong, a resident of Block 202, said he is looking forward to the notification features and flexible storage space offered by PostPal. His letterbox, which he checks once a week, is often stuffed with his children's online shopping orders, the 61-year-old said.

"We don't know (if there will be) any problems ahead, but we must have the courage to try new things," said Mr Foo, who is self-employed.

To familiarise residents with using PostPal, SingPost staff will be stationed at the void deck of Block 202 Clementi Avenue 6 from noon to 8pm on weekdays and 9am to 9pm on weekends starting on Dec 11.

Residents can call 6845-6222 or email with PostPal-related queries and feedback.

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