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While determining the value of incorporating self-driving robot services in their operations, the Australia Post will begin a trial run of an autonomous parcel delivery service they hope can satisfy the demands created by online shopping. These driverless parcels will roll onto footpaths of inner-Brisbane (a city in East Australia), during a four-week trial that’s set to begin in the near future.

Even before the trial run has begun, these “robotic companions” for mail staff have already faced an influx of criticism from industry experts. The autonomous unit has been criticized for its simplicity, as it only consists of a single mobile parcel locker that allows residents to accept a parcel delivery from 6pm to midnight. Upon arriving outside a customer’s residence, the robotic delivery unit issues a text message to the recipient, who can unlock the unit by responding.

The driverless vehicle can navigate itself to and from its destination; however, the device can only transport one parcel at a time, still requires human supervision, and faces several practical issues that industry experts like Queensland University of Technology Robotics Professor Dr. Peter Corke was quick to point out.

“The fact it needs a human minder clearly makes it uneconomic, carrying a single parcel at a time makes it uneconomic,” says Dr. Corke. “To require a robot and a human to deliver one parcel when one guy in a truck can deliver a number of parcels without a hitch is not worth it. People won’t care how the parcel gets to their house, people don’t like having to be at home waiting for a parcel to be delivered. People just want their parcel delivered quickly and securely, and a robot may or may not be the answer to that. At face value, it doesn’t sound very useful.”

Even if the autonomous vehicle possessed a significant degree of intelligence, was economically sufficient, and didn’t require human supervision, there were still several practical issues (namely safety-related flaws) hindering the device’s capabilities.

“How does it cross the road? How does the robot push the button (to cross streets)? How does it avoid running over little children? What about piles of rubbish on the footpath? How do you stop it from being picked up and put on a truck and taken away?” says Dr. Corke.

The vehicle’s practical issues are similar to autonomous robotics that have (or currently) performed equivalent functions (deliveries, transporting goods), many of which are difficult to solve. At the end of the day however, Dr. Corke doesn’t think these solutions are even worthwhile.

“In a research sense, we have the technology to do it (address the challenge), but whether it makes economic sense to put that much computing and senses on a vehicle that delivers a single parcel…it doesn’t sound likely to me,” Dr. Corke says.

Dr. Eleanor Sandry, a robotic technology expert at Curtin University, shared the same sentiments on the Australia Post’s attempts at incorporating autonomous robotics in their operations.

“The real environment is going to impact this technology a great deal; it needs to be able to navigate more proportionately so it doesn’t cause accidents,” Dr. Sandry notes.

On the contrary, Tien Ti Mak, an Australia Post innovation partner and chief technology officer, pointed out how the autonomous robot is equipped with several safety features like sensors that help avoid obstacles, along with LED lights. He also emphasized the program’s attempts at making online shopping more convenient.

“We know that receiving a ‘sorry we missed you’ card can be frustrating,” Ti Mak says. “So we’re looking at new ways to redeliver parcels after hours when more people are likely to be home. Australia Post has continually embraced innovation and trialed new ideas throughout its 208-year history.”

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