Alibaba launches logistics robot for last-mile deliveries to lower costs and as pandemic pushes automation

Alibaba Cloud unveiled its autonomous logistics robot Xiaomanlv for last-mile deliveries at its annual Apsara conference on Sept 17, 2020. — Handout

China’s biggest e-commerce player Alibaba Group Holding has unveiled an autonomous logistics robot aimed at bringing down the cost of last-mile deliveries and in line with a broader push towards automated deliveries by e-commerce companies amid the pandemic.

Xiaomanlv, which translates into English roughly as ‘little competent donkey’, can deliver as many as 500 packages a day to one designated community or campus carrying 50 packages at a time. It can also cover 100km on a single charge, according to a statement on Thursday by Alibaba at its annual Apsara cloud computing event.

“The trends in new retail and online services have driven up the requirements for delivery services, with the number of deliveries per day expected to exceed one billion in the near future,” said Jeff Zhang, president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, at the event. “Last-mile delivery is the most expensive and inefficient part of the whole supply chain.”

Chinese e-commerce giants have been ramping up development of robots during the pandemic to limit human contact and prevent the spread of Covid-19. In February, Meituan Dianping and deployed autonomous vehicles to deliver food and medical supplies in certain districts in Beijing and Wuhan respectively.

“The demographic dividend in China will disappear in the future, and the cost of human labour will be much higher. Using machines in the future to solve last-mile delivery is a must,” said Zhao Yue, an analyst at research firm Analysys.

In the US meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration designated Amazon Prime Air as an “air carrier” last month, allowing the e-commerce giant to begin its first commercial deliveries via drones in the country under a trial program.

Online shopping has been booming in China as more people have moved to digital channels in place of physical malls. Transactions on both and Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Tmall during the mid-year shopping festival in China surpassed the totals in 2019, according to company data.

Xiaomanlv is able to program a route through crowded environments, operate with a weak GPS signal and identify obstacles and predict the intended movement of passengers and vehicles a few seconds ahead of time.

This is done with the help of reinforced learning technologies, high-definition positioning technology, a self-developed heterogeneous computing platform, and 3D Point Cloud Semantic Segmentation (PCSS) technology, according to Alibaba.

Customers can use Alibaba’s Cainiao or Taobao mobile app to select a preferred time slot for delivery and retrieve packages by entering a passcode via the app.

Zhang said Alibaba will leverage the technology and invest in developing other service robots, such as those used at airports and as guides at scenic tourism spots.

However, Zhao from Analysys said that achieving full, unstaffed deliveries is still some way off and a more practical application right now is to use it in closed areas, such as inside buildings and on campus.

“Current unmanned deliveries are all at the trial stage because implementing this needs policy support from the government,” said Zhao. “Without clear definition in law, there are no rules on who should take responsibility in the case of a road accident [for example].”

Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post. – South China Morning Post

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