The coronavirus pandemic has rendered interaction with other people potentially dangerous and, in some states in the U.S., illegal. In only a few weeks, the necessity to limit human-to-human contact has led to a spike in the trial of services like grocery delivery and pickup. As the crisis wears on, another newer grocery technology could become more prominent thanks to the constraints imposed by social distancing.
The Broad Branch Market in Chevy Chase, Md. has begun utilizing robots for delivery in order to allow customers to get groceries with minimal human interaction, ABC 6 in Philadelphia reported. Customers within a one-mile radius of the store can have their groceries delivered by a 45-pound, knee-high robot on wheels. The service is part of a beta test and is free to customers at present. One customer reported receiving her groceries within 30 minutes with the robot.
While curbside pickup and delivery both can still offer risks if person-to-person contact is not conducted correctly, utilizing delivery robots would remove all possibility of direct contact between grocery store employees and customers.
Pilots of delivery robots and autonomous vehicles for last-mile grocery fulfillment have grown common in the past few years. Tech startups, logistics companies and grocers in the U.S. and internationally have been testing wheeled, mobile cooler-style delivery robots, fully autonomous vehicles and airborne drones. Willingness to allow pilots of different types of robots has varied between municipalities, with some U.S. cities banning or restricting them to particular areas to avoid possible risks to pedestrians.
Grocery is not the only area where there is potential for delivery robots to pick up steam.
With restaurants closed worldwide due to social distancing practices, robotic delivery startup Refraction AI, based in Ann Arbor, MI, has seen an increase in restaurant partners and maxed-out orders from customers, according to Slate.
In China, robots have also been used for food delivery (as well as for medical supplies) in quarantined areas throughout the course of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Forbes article. In that case, major companies and startups already working in the delivery robot space scaled up these services to meet the demands of the coronavirus outbreak.