Delivery robots look set to play a major role in cutting Dubai traffic, as autonomous vehicles prepare to replace motorcycle couriers in parts of the city.
A range of autonomous robots was shown off by the Roads and Transport Authority at the Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (Gitex), which opened at the Dubai World Trade Centre on Sunday.
The RTA had challenged universities and international businesses to develop machines capable of operating in Dubai.
The Dubai World Challenge for Self-Driving Transport 2021 competition attracted entries from companies including Neolix from China and Yandex of Russia.
Other entries came from Italy, France, Austria and the US.
“During Covid, we saw great potential in using the same technology for self-driving cars in deliveries for food and groceries,” said Sergey Kirillov, business development executive at Yandex.
“Deployment started a year ago and we now complete around 500 orders a day in Russia and the US.
“The robots are quite manoeuvrable. They have the same technology and reliability of a car, so it is very advanced.
“It can go anywhere and use traffic lights and crossroads.”
The robots are used by US food delivery company Grubhub on campus at Ohio State University, and also in Moscow and St Petersburg.
Speed is limited to around eight kilometres an hour in pedestrianised areas, but they have the potential to go much faster on open roads.
Each of the six wheels has a motor – giving the robot 1.5 kilowatts total power – and delivery is completed within 3km of a kitchen or restaurant.
The bots are secure and difficult to tamper with, said the manufacturer.
Packed with safety sensors and security features, motorised vending machines and driverless delivery vehicles were demonstrated at Dubai’s giant tech event to show how they could soon be dropping off deliveries at your door.
Groceries, fast food and online shopping were all presented as viable options to put the automated transport to use and help cut emissions in the city for last-mile deliveries.
“We want to start deliveries in Dubai as we have done an assessment that found a third of the city was suitable for these kind of robots,” said Mr Kirillov.
“In the markets where we operate, we already offer better costs than a human courier.
“It is usually 15-20 per cent more affordable.”
Another autonomous delivery machine is made by Neolix.
The vending bot has completed months of tests and is set to partner with online retailers Noon to complete deliveries around Emaar Boulevard in Downtown Dubai.
Although not as high profile as production machines now vital in automated manufacturing, robots in restaurants and retail are becoming increasingly popular.
Analysts at Statista, a German company specialising in market and consumer data, forecast spending on robotics is expected to soar to $210 billion by 2025 as more nations invest in autonomous machines.
There were an estimated 2.7 million industrial robots operating in 2019 with a market value of around $88bn.
But legislation is the major hurdle in the way of wider adoption of the technology.
Germany has already passed legislation for autonomous vehicles to drive on public roads by 2022, and Dubai aims to have 25 per cent of all journeys completed autonomously by 2030.
Khaled Al Awadhi, director of transportation systems at the Dubai RTA, said international developers have shown keen interest in bringing their technology to Dubai.
“We want companies to come to Dubai to understand the different conditions here and the challenges we face,” he said.
“The challenges are an opportunity for businesses in food and beverage and other industries to innovate their services so we can make new partnerships between them and technology providers.”
In the UK, hardware chain Wilko will invest $4 million in battery-powered autonomous vehicles to deliver to customers living within 10km of a store.
UK autonomous vehicle manufacturers StreetDrone expect to have the robots deployed by 2023.
Fully driverless cars are currently banned in the UK, although legislation is under review.
“One of the partners from China is Neolix and is a little different,” said Mr Al Awadhi during the Gitex event.
“It can work as a vending machine for multiple items. People can interact with it and if they want to buy an item, they can call it and it will come to them.
“These machines will be working on pedestrianised areas, away from busy roads.”