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Postal delivery robots trialled in Norway

The Norwegian postal service is testing out the value and viability of robots delivering mail to homes and businesses

Norway is primed to take robot-delivered mail services to an unprecedented new level in the Nordic region.

A project, funded by the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MTC), plans to roll out an autonomous letter and parcel delivery robot that has been custom designed for Posten Norge, the country’s national postal service. The Posten Norge Mail Robot (PNMR) will be put through a series of tests in delivering letters and parcels in November and December 2018.

The PNMR’s testing ground will be Kongsberg, a small town in south-east Norway with a population of around 25,000. The project was timed to coincide with an ongoing comprehensive review of Posten Norge’s existing business model, its cost base and future technology needs.

Initially, the PNMR will be deployed to deliver mail and parcels directly to homes and offices at flexible times. This will include a special out-of-hours delivery service. 

“Our objective is to develop what we believe will be the world’s first autonomous self-driven letter and package robot. The trial will test the capacity of the robot to handle around 100 household deliveries per day. Our robot uses advanced steering and sensor technology, and moves at a maximum speed of just under 4mph. This is a low-risk and environment friendly speed,” said Posten Norge CEO Tone Wille.

Posten Norge is running the PNMR project in collaboration with Oslo-headquartered autonomous guided vehicles (AGV) specialist Buddy Mobility.

The postal service is hoping to introduce and expand the use of autonomous delivery robots (ADRs) as part of its never-ending battle to control costs.

Physical and technical challenges

To succeed in the PNMR project, partners Posten Norge and Buddy Mobility will need to overcome a number of important challenges, physical and technical.

Designed to operate in urban environments, the ADRs’ smart sensory and guidance software will need to be configured to navigate safely among people. Other obstacles include multiple static fixtures such as light poles, street signage, steps and kerbs, along with extreme weather conditions such as ice and snow.   

Thomas Brun-Scanpix-NTB

“Our objective is to develop the world’s first autonomous letter and package robot. The trial will test the capacity of the robot to handle around 100 household deliveries per day”

Tone Wille, Posten Norge

The ADRs are unlikely to be deployed in densely populated urban areas and streets, at least not until they are better capable of performing a standard range of human functions that are currently provided by human postal delivery employees.

In the long term, the operation of ADRs may also require local authorities to designate so-called “robolanes” to allow ADRs to move safely and complete their delivery missions while navigating up and down densely populated streets in towns and cities. 

Reducing operating costs

Posten Norge is hoping that a future business strategy linked to the wider use of ADRs will generate value by reducing operating costs to a level that can help offset revenue losses on the traditional mail delivery side. This comes as mail volumes continue to fall at a dramatic rate, both in Norway and across the Nordic region.

The PNMR will also be used to investigate and assess the possible long-term advantages of using different forms of autonomous delivery robots to introduce important new revenue streams to the package and parcel sector. An additional revenue stream could emerge if ADRs were modified and used to deliver other types of goods, such as groceries.

“We are testing robot technologies that could replace the traditional mailbox. The robot is designed to return to the post depot independently in the evening, where it is loaded with more letters and packets for next-day delivery”
Tone Wille, Posten Norge

The trial in Kongsberg will subject the ADR to a range of tests that will include the functionality of interactive technologies. These include smartphone-based mail and parcel delivery functions where the recipient customer receives a code via SMS text message to facilitate secure collection from an ADR. 

“We are testing robot technologies that could conceivably, one day, replace the traditional mailbox. The robot is designed to return to the post depot independently in the evening, where it is loaded with more letters and packets for next-day delivery,” said Wille.

Kongsberg robots on a global stage

The high ambition of the PNMR project, particularly in areas where it drives innovation and applies new technologies, will undoubtedly cast an international spotlight on the Kongsberg pilot scheme.

“We see huge potential in autonomous technology. For us, it’s important that a major industry actor like Posten Norge decided to take the first bold step forward to contribute to the development and application of advanced robot delivery solutions,” said Per Ivar Selvaag, CEO at Buddy Mobility.

“What we are doing in Kongsberg has a global application and reach. It can be scaled to meet the demands of autonomous letter and parcel deliveries across different markets,” said Selvaag.

The Posten Norge Mail Robot (PNMR) will be put through a series of tests in delivering letters and parcels

Many of the sensory and guidance components used in the ADR have been harnessed from electric vehicles manufactured by the Danish eco-carmaker Kewet in the 1990s. Kewet was transformed into Buddy Mobility in the wake of a takeover by Norwegian investors.

Buddy Mobility emerged from the ashes of the loss-making electric auto company, Buddy, which filed for bankruptcy in 2011. An investment consortium headed by Norwegian financier Tharald Nustad acquired the guidance electronics and navigation systems parts of Buddy’s bankrupt estate. All technologies and associated patents salvaged in the deal were later transferred to two newly incorporated Norway-based companies, Buddy Electric and Buddy Mobility.

The technology transfers from Buddy’s failed and liquidated electric car business were critical to Buddy Electric’s plans to manufacture AGVs, such as electric scooters and wheelchairs for the mobility impaired. Moreover, the transfers also greatly benefited the Buddy Mobility startup. The Tharald Nustad-controlled Buddy Electric remains a key shareholder in Buddy Mobility.

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