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Delivery Bots Could Aid Pandemic Response

Sam Abuelsamid
Mar 17, 2020

Drone

As I write this, countries scramble to contain the spread of COVID-19, a new coronavirus that sprung up in China in late 2019. Hundreds of millions of people in China, Iran, Italy, and elsewhere are told to stay home and avoid close contact with other people. To date, there are more than 111,000 confirmed cases and nearly 4,000 people have died from COVID-19. In parts of the world where mass lockdowns have yet to take effect, people are buying staple foods, medicines, and other supplies in case of home confinement for weeks at a time.

Once a quarantine takes effect, as it did in large portions of China in February 2020, replenishing basic supplies becomes problematic. While mass quarantines can help slow the spread of a pandemic, they also bring logistical problems such as how to feed the population. Automated driving could be a huge help by enabling deliveries while minimizing human contact that leads to infection in cities.

Centralized Points of Human Contact Spread Disease, Delivery Bots Don’t

In early February 2020, the outbreak spread beyond China and a cruise ship was quarantined for 2 weeks in Yokohama, Japan following a trip to Taiwan, China, and Vietnam. The environment was a microcosm of what can go wrong with quarantines. Passengers were kept in their cabins and the crew had to deliver meals and other supplies. The interactions between crew and passengers completely defeated the point of the quarantine. The result was the virus spreading throughout the ship with more than 700 people eventually being infected. The same can happen in a city on a much larger scale if residents have to rely on delivery people to bring groceries if they are required to stay at home. Wuhan, China where the outbreak is believed to have begun, has a population of more than 11 million people and the region has had more than 75,000 infections.

While human interactions cannot be entirely eliminated in a community, at least some aspects can be mitigated. Imagine if automated delivery bots and drones were widely available and in use in these communities today. These vehicles could be dispatched from stores and warehouses to make deliveries and disinfected after each trip. While isolation is rarely a desirable outcome for people, in a medical emergency, it is often the best path forward to limit the spread of the pathogen. Automated driving or flying technology has the potential to help the population avoid the risk of having to venture out into crowds until the emergency subsides. The same could also be true for some natural disasters where people may be stranded in place.

Delivery Bots Are Here

Navigant Research, a Guidehouse company’s report, Delivery Bots and Drones Could Revolutionize Last-Mile Logistics, discusses the current state of these technologies and their different deployment approaches. It anticipates that nearly 120,000 delivery drones will make over 420 million deliveries annually by 2030. Ground-based bots are already used in a variety of trials around the world and making hundreds of thousands of deliveries.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently granted a waiver to Mountainview, California-based Nuro to deploy up to 5,000 R2 delivery bots by 2022. Whether aerial or ground-based, vehicles are not designed to carry passengers. As a result, there is a lower safety risk and they are likely to see deployment sooner than other types of automated vehicles. Hopefully, by the time the next large-scale medical emergency hits, this technology can be used to assist.