Coronavirus outbreak accelerates the rise of unmanned logistics

The current outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), first discovered in December 2019, has severely impacted many industries. One such is logistics. However, the outbreak brought many new opportunities in the industry, along with its challenges.

With many Chinese citizens staying at home to avoid infection, people rely on online purchases for supplies and home deliveries. According to the large-scale data on epidemic prevention consumption released by China’s largest non-governmental retailer Suning, the volume of online orders in Suning’s Food Market increased by 419.6% and the amount of “Online order and pick up at the store” increased by over 655%.

However, the traditional delivery system failed to fulfill the demand due to a certain degree of “blockade” from the customers as part of the “self-isolation policy.” The only solution was unmanned logistics, which showed steady potential for growth during the epidemic.

Unmanned logistics refers to a delivery process where the packages depart from an unmanned warehouse, transported quickly through an unmanned ground truck to a distribution center, and then passed by unmanned delivery trolley or drone in the last mile to destination.

The benefits of unmanned logistics are notable. It can make package delivery between the warehouses and consumers more efficient. Unmanned logistics is, therefore, likely to accelerate its development after the epidemic, according to experts.

Suning has recently set up an unmanned delivery team in collaboration with the Suning Convenience Store to launch a “contactless distribution service” with 5 G unmanned vehicles, guaranteeing instant delivery service around 3 km around the store, further reducing the risk of infection between the consumer and the courier.

Suning is not the first to respond to the needs of the epidemic and to prevent and control further outbreaks. In February, Antwork launched its first “urban air transportation channel,” using medical delivery drones for the quick delivery of medical samples and quarantine materials. To minimize the contact opportunities between samples and personnel in the distribution, Antwork used its automatic and unmanned operation mode, and drones from the Terra Drone Group, to accelerate the delivery speed. The actual transportation process saw a 50 percent increase in efficiency compared with ordinary road transportation. The use of drones for transport also allowed more staff and ambulances to be used in the front-line defense by saving human and material resources.

Meanwhile, Chinese e-commerce giant completed its first delivery by drone to a village near Baiyang Lake in Northern China’s Hebei province. The package contained snacks, electronics, and daily necessities. More packages are shipped to their destinations in the same manner during the coronavirus outbreak.

Now, one question remains. Can it be entirely autonomous or unmanned on a full scale for the logistics industry? The Suning Retail Technology Research Institute’s experts believe it’s hard for the logistics industry to get autonomous very quickly. Still, there is a significant increase in consumer acceptance and demand for unmanned distribution.

Suning currently uses “Compass,” an independently developed autonomous warehouse control system for the storage, replenishment, picking, packaging, labeling, sorting, etc. in its unmanned warehouse. The entire process, starting with picking, labeling, and sorting in the warehouse, only takes 20 minutes to complete, making it the most efficient. The numbers show that picking efficiency is 600 pieces/hour, which reduces the cost by 52%.

Notably, in 2018, Suning Logistics completed the groundwork for its unmanned ground truck “Xinglong One,” which uses advanced AI technology, helping with radar, high-precision maps, and other sensors to accurately identify obstacles in high-speed conditions within 300 meters. This autonomous truck has the potential to reach a top speed of 80kph. In 2017, Suning began testing its first delivery drones in Anji, Zhejiang Province, setting up three drone delivery routes in Lingbi County, Huaiyuan County, and Jinzhai County, Anhui Province. Suning also has BIU, a new delivery robot that can plan the route and deliver packages autonomously.