Future of Delivery

Vans, robots, and the future of delivery.

Lunch-time at Daimler’s main plant in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim: Workers stream from the exits into the sunlight. Some head to the park, some to the canteen. A stranger moves against the crowd. It mounts the kerb, allows a group of pedestrians to pass, then rolls straight for the stairs on the outside of the building. The stranger is 6D63, a delivery robot for Starship Technologies. 

Jasmine Hagg, a Marketing intern at Mercedes-Benz Vans, is a test customer for 6D63. Seconds ago, she received a message on her smartphone to let her know that her package was incoming. Descending the stairs, Jasmin spots the vehicle. It has a cute, compact design. A flattened ovoid with six wheels. Its small yellow flag flutters in the breeze, but it is not needed. The robot is exactly where Jasmin’s smartphone says it will be. She unlocks the cargo-hold using an app and removes a folder. 

6D63 makes its way back to the “mothership,” a Sprinter designed to hold a range of packages and up to eight delivery robots. On their premises in Untertürkheim, Mercedes-Benz Vans is trialling a robotic delivery system, and 6D63 just passed its first test. The aim of the trial was to deliver eight packages simultaneously using the robots housed in the Sprinter. The increased efficiency allows the delivery man to prepare for his next stop, or handle the more unwieldy packages himself.

As part of the ‘Robotic Delivery System’ project, transporters and delivery robots interact intelligently at the software and hardware levels. This means the robots and the Sprinter remain in constant communication. On board the Sprinter, the lower deck is reserved as a parking space for the robots. The upper deck is a cargo hold for parcels. An innovative shelving system allows the robots to get in and out of the van without assistance. The robots navigate streets, public squares and footpaths using cameras and GPS, checking their surroundings constantly to ensure safe passage. With six wheels and flexible wheel suspension, 6D63 can negotiate even high kerbs easily.

Starship Technologies ran successful tests of its robots in the UK, Switzerland, and Germany, with the parcel delivery company Hermes, and the electrical appliance retailer Saturn. The next step was to connect the robots with a transporter as a “mobile hub”. Mercedes-Benz Vans and the Sprinter were the first to rise to this challenge. Interdisciplinary project teams work in the manner of a start-up, trying to make use of the opportunities afforded by an increasingly digitised and networked global environment. This way, the Van is more than just a vehicle – it becomes an integrated solution for the transportation of goods and people.

Thanks to the company's inventive ethic, automated transport systems may well become normal in the future. “I am certain that the use of robots will result in some significant changes”, says co-founder Athi Heinla. “Ships will navigate in automatic mode, trucks will drive autonomously and delivery robots will become part of everyday life on our streets. It is not going to happen overnight, but more quickly than many people think”. Soon Sprinters and robots will deliver parcels containing shoes, clothes or books on public roads. Mercedes-Benz Vans’ system solution of simultaneous, automated delivery from a central hub, will make the world’s parcel delivery services sit up and take note.