Now that contactless delivery is a requirement, autonomous vehicles have a use case that makes sense to a lot more businesses. Delivery robots and self-driving delivery vehicles are no longer limited to early adopters; hospitals, e-commerce companies, and restaurants all need new options to serve customers, take care of patients, and keep employees healthy.

In “The Future of the Last-Mile Ecosystem,” the World Economic Forum estimates that the demand for e-commerce delivery will result in 36% more vehicles in inner cities by 2030.

SEE: 5 successful smart city projects (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

During this current challenge due to the coronavirus, food banks, shelters, senior care facilities, hospitals, and clinics are also facing logistics challenges, as demand rises and the labor force is operating under new restrictions.

Mark Fontecchio, an IoT analyst at 451 Research, part of S&P Global Market Intelligence, said the coronavirus could improve consumer attitudes toward autonomous vehicles in cases where it means less human contact and, therefore, less chance of transmitting the coronavirus. However, the macroeconomic fallout from the global pandemic may stall existing momentum in autonomous vehicles.

“The coronavirus will likely lead to some delayed investment in technologies like autonomous driving because their roadmaps are still long-term, and companies will be hyper-focused in the near-term on just staying in business,” he said.

Instead of driverless cars transporting people, the 2020 image of autonomous vehicles is a robot shuttle carrying COVID-19 tests within a hospital campus and smaller robots disinfecting offices and subway stations.

Jeff Alholm, CEO and co-founder of Digital Aerolus, said his company has seen an increased interest in drones since the pandemic started, particularly a new model that has UVC light disinfection capabilities.

Here are a few ways self-driving and autonomous vehicles are easing the burden of the coronavirus.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

Self-driving shuttles, COVID-19 and the Mayo Clinic

Autonomous vehicles experiments have paid off in Jacksonville, FL, for both the city and the Mayo Clinic campus there. About two weeks ago, driverless shuttles began transporting medical supplies and COVID-19 tests from drive-through testing locations to labs within the hospital grounds. Four autonomous vehicles run the route in full autonomous mode without attendants or other people onboard. A human driving a car follows the autonomous shuttle, and operators monitor it from a command center. The COVID-19 test samples are placed in secure containers, and Mayo Clinic healthcare professionals load the samples onto the shuttle.

The Mayo Clinic worked with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA), Beep, and NAVYA to create, test, and deploy the routes for the autonomous vehicles.

Beep manages the software, and NAYVA makes the vehicles. The JTA has been testing AV technology since 2017 to its downtown elevated railway into a network powered by autonomous vehicles. Bestmile, a fleet orchestration and optimization software company, is also part of the project.

Delivering food in quarantined communities

Unity Drive Innovation (UDI) has been delivering fresh fruit and vegetables to 15 communities in eastern China during the coronavirus outbreak. The autonomous van uses LiDAR, cameras, and deep-learning algorithms to navigate the roads and can carry up to 1,000 kilograms in its cargo compartment. UDI offers complete mobility solutions, including software and hardware development, vehicle design and production, and transportation as a service platforms. The company provides autonomous logistics vehicles, autonomous shuttles, remote driving systems, and cloud dispatch monitoring systems.

Sidewalk robots do door-to-door deliveries

The KiwiBot delivers food and supplies but to individuals instead of entire communities. The rugged robot was designed for food deliveries but has been repurposed to deliver supplies to students on campus and healthcare workers in hospital campuses. The autonomous delivery robots began delivering sanitary supplies, masks, antibacterial gels, and hygiene products in Berkeley, CA and Denver a few weeks after the start of the outbreak.

The company reports that it has completed more than 100,000 food transactions as well. The company added hygiene controls to its point-to-point delivery system to lower the risk of transmitting the coronavirus.

Autonomous robots on disinfection duty

In China and Hong Kong, robots are cleaning public spaces to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

In Hong Kong, an automated machine sprays a hydrogen peroxide solution to disinfect surfaces. The regular cleaning staff is still on the job and uses the Vaporized Hydrogen Peroxide Robot to disinfect small spaces that are difficult to reach by hand. A custodian can program the robot to operate automatically by loading a floor plan of the designated area or remotely control the robot with a mobile device within a distance of 20 meters. The company estimates that it takes about four hours to complete the cleaning of an 8-car train in automatic mode.

In China, UVD Robots Ap is deploying its disinfection robots in about 2,000 hospitals. The machines use UV-C light to kill germs; it can autonomously reposition itself to clean surfaces instead of having a human come in and out of a patient room. Disinfecting a small patient room with a single bed and an adjacent bathroom takes 12 to 15 minutes, according to the company. UVD Robots also has a customer base in the Middle East and plans to expand to the US later this year.

Unity Drive Innovation has been delivering fresh fruit and vegetables to 15 communities in eastern China during the coronavirus outbreak.
Image: Unity Drive Innovation