Mercedes-Benz Autonomous Delivery Van

At last year’s IAA show in Hannover, Germany, Mercedes-Benz Vans unveiled its drone-delivery Vision Van and teased the press with its Vans & Robots concept. On the eve of the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Stefan Maurer, head of future transportation for Mercedes-Benz Vans, went into greater detail about its ideas for incorporating new robot technologies in its Sprinter van to better optimize last-mile delivery in an ever-increasing age of digitization and e-commerce.

The Vans & Robots project is a partnership between Mercedes-Benz Vans and Starship Technologies, a London-based robotics company. The two companies aim to make the delivery concept an automated alternative to drones – particularly in urban environments – for as little as $1 per delivery.

Unlike the Vision Van project that Maurer also heads and uses two roof-mounted drones, the Vans & Robots concept can carry up to eight robot delivery vehicles and 54 parcels at a time in the back of a Sprinter configured with a computer-controlled shelving system.

The system tells the driver where to dispatch the robots and packages based on an optimized route plan designed to make the delivery day as efficient as possible, allowing the driver to deliver more loads than he otherwise could manually.

Once the driver receives the notification from the system to deploy a robot, he stops the van, selects the appropriate parcel then loads it into the robot’s cargo space and dispatches the it from an onboard computer screen.

The robot uses computer vision to create a digital 3D map along its route and stays in constant contact with the Sprinter van that has likely moved to its next delivery point. After the robot delivers the parcel to the addressee, it then proceeds back to the van or waits at a “virtual bus stop” to be picked up by the van driver along his route.

The robots have a maximum payload of roughly 20 pounds and are loaded with security and anti-theft features to deter would-be criminals from intercepting packages as the unsupervised robot is en route to delivery. Those systems include nine onboard cameras, two-way audio capabilities, GPS tracking, a tamper siren and a lockable cargo container.

Henry Harris-Burland, marketing and communications manager for Starship Technologies, said the company has completed 15,000 miles of internal testing and one year of real-world testing where robots have encountered 3 million pedestrians in 58 cities without a single security incident.

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