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China’s commence giants deploy robots to deliver orders amid coronavirus outbreak


Until very recently, goods flowed from one end to the other, freely globally via global postal mail network or other supply chain networks but recent U.S - China trade policy, Brexit, and now the coronavirus crisis have challenged the validity of this fundamental free global flow of goods. The coronavirus illustrates the vulnerability of having so many sources located in one spot and a spot that is far away from critical markets in America and Europe. This raise a huge concerns over how to provide effective and uninterrupted service to the customers in a highly volatile world with large-scale supply chain disruptions. It’s impossible to anticipate the arrival of global crises such as the coronavirus outbreak, but even at this relatively early stage, we can draw important lessons and look in to the ways addressing such circumstances using innovations and technology.

Among disasters, outbreaks of epidemics account for excessive damages of human, material capital, and severe interruptions to the management of operations or the supply chain. The operation management in logistics has a goal to make sure that the process of moving goods from one place to another keep running in an effective and efficient manner to produce the best quality of output to meet the customer needs.

Outbreak of Novel Corona Virus has imposed a major impact on the global postal network, led to suspensions of flights to some destinations. China as global giant and a major contributors to the world’s postal and logistical network handling billions of items per year faces the direct impacts of this suspension of flights to China. It has not only affected the postal network, but it has taken more a form of trade issue as deliveries has effected from bulk to e-commerce services as many of the operators of the UPU member countries announcing they would no longer take post destined for China.

However it is given when disaster strikes, picking up the pieces is one of the most important aspects of moving on and trying to deal with the chaos. In point of view of disaster resiliency and risk reduction, Technological Advancement and Innovation have created new opportunities providing alternative paths to overcome the challenges.  As the fear of world postal operators grow due to the outbreak,  development of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, innovations of Robotics, drone technology, autonomous vehicles could provide the best options to ensure deliveries "via non face-to-face methods" for public safety and real world application of technology.
According to Mr. Yang Xu, a Senior Research Analyst from China, these technologies are not new and existed before the epidemic, but the outbreak has “promoted its’ popularity”. It is evident that Chinese ecommerce giants are ramping up their deployment of robots to deliver orders in an effort to prevent the spread of the deadly Covid-19 disease through human-to-human contact. Chinese web based shopping platform “Meituan Dianping” provides locally found consumer products, retail services and offers deals of the day by selling vouchers on local services and entertainment, dining, delivery, and other services throughout China. They have launched a “contactless delivery” initiative across China last month. They have tested the use of indoor delivery robots  and drones for deliveries. With the outbreak they are deploying autonomous delivery vehicles on public roads for the first time.

Use of this type of disruptive technologies can be examined across a spectrum of different factors, such as location, complexity and cost any of the technologies could, theoretically, be applied in rural as well as urban areas, and are equally relevant in both. Use of Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs), a new generation of plane-sized autonomous delivery vehicles, usually named as cargo drones is capable of carrying hundreds of pounds for hundreds of miles. They are fast, more environmentally friendly, and could completely change the cargo industry. Delivery drones are being tested today that are designed to drop a single item nearby a target, which is a more local solution. The most recent experience is Japan Airlines (JAL) carrying out a trial flights to deliver fresh fish from Nagasaki Prefecture to Tokyo using drones. This attempt was successful and this trial aimed to develop a new type of air cargo service using UAV technology in Japan. Instead of sending truckloads of goods on a set schedule, cargo-carrying drones can ship fewer items more often but with less of an impact. Focused on rural areas and shuttling goods between distribution centres, cargo drones are designed that they can be land in either land or water or take off vertically, making drop-offs even more flexible.

With all the good benefits of the use of disruptive technologies in disaster settings faces a number of challenges limiting their impact. Investment for implementing digital solutions for disaster management can be high, while costs of hardware such as UAVs and sensors are continuously declining, the cost of operating, integrating and analysing the information they generate are high. Countries vary in their capabilities to properly absorb digital technologies for disaster situation and there are differences in access to ICTs as well as applications. This may make it problematic for some disruptive technologies to achieve wide impact. While some of the technologies require few skills and their use can be learned quickly, a high level of competence is required to successfully deploy others. Drones and robots require skilled human technicians to deploy, operate and maintain. In contrary, many of developing countries are in short supply of the skill set and resources to utilize these technologies. Disruptive technologies pose a number of regulatory and legal challenges and raise regulatory and security concerns. However it is evident that Technology has the potential to do things that human cannot during time of disasters and emergencies utilizing technology on the forefront to maintain uninterrupted service to the customer.



Commentary by Norika Warnasuriya

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