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Dublin: 13 °C Thursday 21 March, 2019
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Bye-bye pizza guy, no more spice bag shame: The future of getting a takeaway

Oh, and… hello flying robots.

This man could be a thing of the past
This man could be a thing of the past
Image: YouTube

The way we live is changing fast. Every fortnight in our new Future Focus series, supported by Volkswagen, we’ll look at how one aspect of everyday life could change in the coming years. This week: payments and grocery shopping.

IT’S A SUNDAY evening. You’re dying for a spicebag, but you’re wearing pyjamas and you’re certainly not going out, so you order in.

You count down the minutes to estimated arrival time, and feel unreasonably angry when it takes ten minutes longer than that before the doorbell rings. You put a big coat on over your raggedy t-shirt, struggle to find change for a tip, avoid looking the delivery person in the eye, and scuttle back to your bedroom in shame.

Luckily, a solution to the problems of takeaway delivery is on the way: a robot delivery person.

In Ireland we’re slightly behind, but in Europe, the US and Asia, takeaway delivery is already upping its game. While we’re still trying to make ourselves presentable for the delivery person at the door, elsewhere delivery robots, drones and self-driving cars are starting to populate roads, footpaths, and in the case of drones, the skies, on a trial basis. The future of takeaway delivery in Ireland is likely to be robotic.

Currently, these delivery robots are more similar to self-driving vacuum cleaners than to Star Wars’ C3PO or Futurama’s Bender. Robots used by JustEat in London use sensors and a camera to navigate the pavements, and send a text with a PIN number in it when it gets to your location. When you get to the robot, you enter your pin, and it opens to give you your food.

A Starship delivery robot, like those used by Just Eat Source: DPA/PA Images

JustEat’s fleet of 10 robots has been delivering robots for more than a year now, and had delivered more than 1,000 meals by last August. The benefits of using a robot delivery service became clear recently when Storm Emma hit Ireland and the UK: JustEat’s robots continued to safely deliver takeaway throughout the bad weather, while Deliveroo came under fire for incentivising their human workers with extra money to work in the weather conditions.

Interestingly, we’re already seeing the humanisation of these helpful robots. Domino’s DRU delivery robot is operational in Germany and the Netherlands, although delivery by robot is currently only available within one mile of certain Domino’s outlets. Domino’s describes its DRU unit as “cheeky and endearing”, and as a “he” rather than an “it”. Similarly, in Japan, a “cute” sushi delivery robot called CarriMo can carry enough for 60 people, and is currently trundling around office parks and private areas as legalities prevent it from operating in cities at this point. I, Robot, here we come?

Cooking your takeaway might soon be done by robots too – at least partially. At Zume in San Francisco, robots with names like Marta, Giorgio and Vincenzo press out the ball of pizza dough, dispense and spread tomato sauce and put the pizza in the oven, while humans are still in charge of more intricate tasks like putting on the toppings.

Here’s a closer look at the pizza-making robots:

Source: TechCrunch/YouTube

Zume’s delivery vehicles are fitted with ovens, and they use location tracking to fire up your pizza for four minutes before it gets to you, literally just out of the oven. This could be a great option for Ireland in the future, where deliveries to more rural locations can prove challenging.

But it’s Domino’s that is perhaps the frontrunner in takeaway delivery innovation, with robots, drones and self-driving cars all in trial. Domino’s has been collaborating with Ford in Michigan and Miami to see how humans react to collecting their pizza directly from a car, with no human driver. They operate similarly to the robots in that the person has to enter a pin to get their takeaway, but can obviously travel further distances. As long as trials show that humans won’t mind having to walk out of their building to the delivery car, rather than receiving their food from another human at the door, self-driving cars could be the next big thing in takeaway delivery.

Drone hubs

That is, unless drones beat them to it. Drone deliveries are being trialled at the moment, but still involve humans in most instances. The first drone food delivery service to operate in a city launched in Reykjavik in mid-2017, but it hasn’t yet started door to door delivery. Currently, drones are cutting food delivery times in the Icelandic capital by carrying the food as far as a hub, where a traditional delivery person collects and takes the food the rest of the way.

It may yet be some time before drones are flying overhead in Ireland, however.

“On the one hand, it’s so close and yet it’s still so far away,” says Dr Tim McCarthy, Senior Lecturer at Maynooth University. “The logjam at the moment is that you currently have to operate your drone within your line of sight. If you’re delivering something, that’s not going to get you very far. The technology is almost there, but there are some very real safety and regulatory concerns that need to be addressed.”

A DHL delivery drone being used in Germany Source: DPA/PA Images

However, the question “is not if, it’s when,” he says. “It will gradually come into being, but it’ll be in less risky, more controlled operational environments. I wouldn’t expect drones flying over cities on a regular basis for a couple of years – possibly some limited stuff in the next two years, but it’s not going to happen soon. But you will see it happening in less risky, less populated places sooner, such as marine, wilderness, and low-density rural environments.”

There are advantages and disadvantages to drone delivery, but safety concerns are among the most important factors impacting drone development in Ireland. While most of us associate drones with what you can currently buy in Maplin, delivery and commercial drones are much heavier and bigger, and pose more risk. “The chances are that when this happens, they will operate on routes with the least amount of risk, for instance over areas with very low human activity – away from unprotected vulnerable areas,” says Dr McCarthy.

“For example, in Dublin, they might route a drone up certain sections of the canals as opposed to down busy un-protected zones such as Grafton Street. We have to look at drones from an R&D point of view and ensure that a balance is struck between the advantages to broader society and disadvantages in terms of personal injury, damage or invasion of privacy.”

Human contact has become unnecessary

Another potential factor will be the replacement of human couriers with drones or other technologies. Ele.me in China is trialling E7 delivery drones across several cities which can travel up to 20km at 65km/h, and carry 6kg of food. Although Ele.me haven’t released a timeframe for using drones nationwide, the company – which currently makes 10 million food deliveries a day – said last year that it aimed to replace its human couriers with “more innovative solutions” within five years. Read: human workers replaced by robotic alternatives.

With takeaway delivery becoming such a huge industry, technological advances in delivery could potentially be the difference between success and failure; just look at the rift caused by Deliveroo’s human delivery during Storm Emma. If delivery by drone or self-driving car can shave valuable minutes off delivery time, and robots can operate at any time and in adverse conditions, we might have to get used to yet another area of our lives where human contact has become unnecessary. What Domino’s is trialling now, McDonald’s and the others will be looking at tomorrow.

It might not be long until you can get a meal prepared, cooked and delivered to your house, without the involvement of a single human.

Have you heard Future Stories, TheJournal.ie’s new podcast about things to come? Episode 1 is all about the future of how we eat. Listen below – and subscribe on iTunes here.


Source: Journal Media/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Gráinne Loughran

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