Autonomous robots were a major focus this year at CES, from roaming device demonstrations on the exhibit floor to virtual presentations discussing emerging trends in the space.
Autonomous-delivery startup Ottonomy used the Las Vegas event to spotlight its Ottobot, the company’s newly named delivery robot capable of navigating “crowded and unpredictable environments” and working indoors as well as outside.
Two of Ottonomy’s autonomous delivery robots, or ADRs, are operating inside Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, where the bots make food, beverage and retail deliveries to passengers waiting to board flights.
The autonomous robots, which resemble high-tech coolers on wheels, have a range of 2.5 miles and can operate for six to eight hours before needing to be recharged. The speed of the Ottobots is limited to 5 to 10 mph for safety reasons.
Customers in the airport’s B concourse use a mobile app to request delivery of food or merchandise from select stores operated by Paradies Lagardere. Menu items run the gamut from a grilled chicken caesar wrap to a set of earbuds.
Upon receiving the order, the restaurant or retailer uses the customer’s QR code to unlock a compartment and place the item into the robot to make the delivery. The customer is alerted when the order arrives and must use the unique QR code to gain access.
CEO and founder Ritukar Vijay said that since the company’s inception in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, the objective has been to apply autonomous technology to solve contemporary problems. Ottonomy is specifically focused on addressing the labor shortages facing the restaurant and retail industry and the growing consumer demand for contactless delivery services amid lingering concerns about COVID-19, said Vijay, who previously managed urban autopilot initiatives for BMW.
“In the entire gig economy, the established players, like large retailers [and] the quick service restaurants, it is becoming next to impossible to sustain and give those kind of services to the customer,” Vijay told Automotive News during a video conference. “On the other hand, customers are seeking more of these services because they want the deliveries at their curbside, at their doorstep, or … some contactless delivery mechanism, so that they don’t have to interact with other people.”
In a July report, Guidehouse Insights said it expects the increase in demand for robot deliveries to continue well beyond COVID-19. The report noted that global deliveries by automated vehicles are projected to grow from fewer than 7 million in 2021 to more than 51 billion by 2030.
Airports aren’t the last stop for Ottonomy. It’s working to deploy robots outdoors, making not just curbside and parking lot deliveries, but also last-mile deliveries, and that will mean traveling along sidewalks — and eventually on roads — to ferry goods from a store or restaurant to a customer’s location.
As part of its expansion strategy, Ottonomy has partnered with Crave, a last-mile restaurant delivery service based in Los Angeles, to use the Ottobots to carry food to customers. The company recently announced it is partnering with Presto, a provider of restaurant automation technologies, to use Ottonomy’s robots for curbside food deliveries. According to Vijay, Walmart also is evaluating Ottonomy technology.
Other robot delivery companies looking to make an impact in the last-mile sector include Nuro, Udelv, Kiwibot, Eliport and TeleRetail.
Ottonomy’s strategy entails slowly scaling up its service from indoor to last-mile deliveries, so that it isn’t stymied by regulatory challenges many of its competitors face, said Vijay.
Ashok Divakaran, Deloitte’s connected and autonomous vehicles leader, said the future business case for ADRs is very viable, considering how the technology could reduce last-mile labor costs.
“There are other benefits, including enabling a continued shift towards e-commerce, COVID-fueled demand for contactless delivery, reduction of pollution and congestion in dense areas, and the potential for customizable ‘on-demand’ delivery,” Divakaran said.
Vijay said Ottonomy is well positioned to play a major role in last-mile solutions because of its unique ADR technology.
“One of the unique features of the technology is that, one, it is autonomous right from day one, so we have the complete suite of an autonomous car, including 3D lidars, multiple cameras and safety sensors — and all of that is running on edge hardware on these robots,” he said. “The second thing is that these robots can do both indoor and outdoor navigation so seamlessly.”
Divakaran believes that the success of delivery robots will be driven by mastering the most complex use cases, mechanics of delivery and navigation, and supporting infrastructure.
He said the ability to master complex use cases for ADRs in dense urban areas is one of the most pivotal obstacles to the wider adoption of the technology.
“This scenario raises the bar to be able to deal with heavy traffic, complex driving conditions, etc.,” said Divakaran. “This correspondingly increases the risks, as well as the level of tech maturity [primarily the AI] needed, not unlike that of a full-blown autonomous passenger vehicle. Paradoxically, it is the more complex use cases that also provide the greatest value proposition.”