Representational Image | Photo Credit: iStock Images Key Highlights Chinese tech companies using robots for delivery of goods. Demand for contactless service peaked during the Covid-19 pandemic. Decline in cost fuelling reliance on robots. New Delhi: Reflecting the ‘new normal’ ushered in by the Covid-19 pandemic, tech giants in China are embracing technology and robots at a large scale. Chinese tech giants like Alibaba, Meituan, and JD.com are all set to use a thousand odd robots as delivery personnel as demands for contactless service surge in the wake of the pandemic. Executives at these companies are expecting a four-fold increase and believe together they may operate over 2,000 robots by 2022.
In China, companies have been exploring the option of using robots or drones to deliver packages from as early as 2013, courtesy a labour crunch in Chinese markets. Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic hit China and the world, the labour crunch has only intensified thus prompting tech companies to look to robots for a solution. Currently, hundreds of thousands of human couriers deliver packages in China for as less as $0.47.
The post-pandemic recovery has resulted in a significant uptick in demand which in turn translated into increase in work and deadlines for human couriers.
However, a recent diktat from the Chinese government had asked delivery companies to ensure adequate rest periods for their workers, further prompting companies to use robots for delivery. The Covid-19 pandemic and the mandate for social distancing also means that people are wary of any human touch and rather prefer contactless services.
The urge for pandemic induced social distancing had prompted companies like JD.com to advance the launch of its robot service from June to February 2020 even as Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, was locked down. Similarly, food delivery giant Meituan had advanced the launch of its robot delivery service to February 2020, a year ahead than originally planned.
However, delivery robots are unlikely to replace human personnel and are only a fraction of the total delivery force. Robots also suffer from myriad limitations including inability to climb stairs, restrictions on routes, speed limits, road conditions, among others.
Currently, they are only allowed on select routes such as school campuses and housing estates because of the above limitations. Moreover, robots are not used to deliver time-sensitive products such as food since the vehicle capacity is limited.
According to the tech giant Alibaba, it currently operates over 200 robots and plans to scale it up to 10,000 over the next three years. As of September, it had delivered over one million orders to more than 200,000 consumers. JD.com which currently uses about 200 robots, is also planning to expand to 1000 units by end-2021.
What seems to be contributing to companies’ increasing reliance on delivery robots is the decline in cost to make them. According to both Alibaba and JD.com, the cost of their robots is well below 250,000 Yuan ($38,662) and is further declining.
Similarly, for Meituan the cost of making robots this year has come down 200,000 Yuan to 400,000 Yuan when compared to the 600,000 Yuan it cost in 2020. The company expects this cost to further come down to less than 200,000 Yuan by 2025.
Delivery firms in other countries are also experimenting with delivery robots. Companies like Yandex in Russia and GrubHub in the United States plan to use driverless robots too.
As the new normal pushes companies to think out of the box, expect more such innovative and tech-driven solutions in the near future. But as is the case with most machines, they are unlikely to fully replace human mind and efforts anytime soon.
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