Mercedes-Benz showcases last-mile robotics fulfilment solution

Mercedes-Benz has demonstrated a prototype van which will transport Starship's fulfilment robots to a central location in order to deliver goods.

The company estimates the solution would be capable of delivering 400 packages every nine hours, compared to the average of 180 – an increase of over 120%.

The Starship robot is capable of carrying the equivalent of two grocery bags, and was originally designed to complete local deliveries within five and 30 minutes from a retail outlet.

By partnering with Mercedes-Benz, the robots will not be limited to the two-mile radius surrounding a particular hub or retailer. The robots will be loaded with their goods in the ‘Robovan’ and the Mercedes-Benz prototype will be able to transport a fleet of up to eight robots to a designated location and the autonomous robots then exit the van and fulfil the last-mile delivery.

“At Mercedes-Benz Vans we are constantly seeking innovations to improve the efficiency for our customers and actively supporting their businesses. In Starship we found an innovative and creative partner to dramatically improve the way of transportation for the last mile”, said Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans. 

“We see a huge potential for robotic delivery systems in the future and by combining our vans and the robots – we call it the mothership concept. With this we are able to increase the efficiency of delivery by an order of magnitude. Working together is like having best of both worlds – the power of a leading van manufacturer combined with the agility and spirit of a startup”.

Stefan Maurer, head of future transportation and Internet of Things (IoT) at Mercedes Benz Vans, told Essential Retail: "Imagine the scenario in a residential area where a lot of customers order for a specific time window, say 5-7pm, a normal van would have to stop every five minutes, but we could deliver to 24 households in an hour."

Mercedes-Benz  said it is currently focusing on developing the technology and innovation, but has said there are multiple business models for the new vehicles. Starship on the other hand, told Essential Retail it could provide a full-service delivery for a logistics company, where the Robovans take over the last ten miles. The company could also imagine selling the van with its integrated technology to logistics companies, such as UPS, DHL and Fedex, to replace their current delivery vans.

"Carriers are trying to squeeze efficiencies from their business model, for instance some US carriers only take right turns so they don't have to wait at traffic lights," said Henry Harris-Burland, marketing and communications manager at Starship Technologies. "But that's not solving the fundamental problems, as more and more people buy things online."


Mercedes-Benz is also in talks with start-ups developing technology for drones. Today, in Germany, it showcased its Vision Van, through a partnership with Matternet. The Vision Van features a fully automated cargo space, integrated with drones for autonomous air deliveries, with the similar principle to the land-based robots. Maurer said he could see drones being deployed for very special deliveries and emergencies in the future. 

"If a construction site urgently needs a special tool, rather than sending an employee off, returning an hour later from the DIY store, why not place an order online and ask for a drone delivery?"

He said the construction site could receive the tool within 15 minutes and Mercedes-Benz could be best placed to provide the landing pad – on the roofs of their fleet of vans.

"The roof of a van would guide the drone," he explains. "But I'm not sure how this will go into a mass scenario."

Mercedes-Benz is also launching an initiative today, called adVANce, where the company will look to integrate more IoT applications into its vehicles, as well as innovative hardware solutions and and on-demand mobility concepts to transport goods and passengers.

Mercedes-Benz said: "The objective of the various activities undertaken in the three fields is to identify innovative solutions for today's and tomorrow's requirements together with customers and users, to develop them quickly to market readiness and to create unprecedented added value for customers in the areas of efficiency, speed and sustainability. The spectrum in this regard is very broad."

The scheme will also aim to change culture within the business and encourage Mercedes-Benz to work with more start-ups.

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