The information comes via SMS: The package is here. But it’s not a postman at the door, but a robot. What sounds like a scenario from the distant future has already become somewhat of a reality as part of a European research project. Scientists from the Technical University (TU) of Braunschweig and other institutions tested the use of two networked, autonomous vehicles for two years.

Now they presented the project in the Lower Saxony city. During a demonstration, a large vehicle – a mobile interim storage facility – could be seen rolling up onto the TU site and transporting two packages. In the next step, a small delivery robot brought the two shipments around a hundred meters around the corner, where a person picked up the packages. The test delivery was successful – a human parcel carrier was not necessary for the handover. According to the information, the large vehicle has a loading volume of up to nine cubic meters, which is as much as a medium-sized van. The smaller delivery vehicle can hold up to 30 packages.

Alleviate the shortage of skilled workers and protect the climate

One of the university’s responsible scientists, Torben Hegerhorst, explained the goal of using robots: They want to fully automate the “last mile” – i.e. the last route to the recipient – and thereby significantly reduce costs. He also cites a good CO2 balance as a positive aspect of using robots; after all, vans with combustion engines no longer drive to the recipient’s front door. “And the other big aspect is the shortage of skilled workers, which can be remedied with this,” says the expert.

In fact, given the high number of shipments – around three and a half billion parcels per year in Germany – the parcel industry is desperately looking for workers. Robots could alleviate these personnel problems – provided that the robot tests at some point actually lead to everyday use for the masses.

The project presented is called “LogiSmile – Last-mile logistics for autonomous goods delivery” (German: Last-mile logistics for autonomous goods delivery). The testing took place not only in Braunschweig, but also near Barcelona and in Hungary, and external companies were involved.

Humans are not yet completely dispensable

However, the process in the robot concept is not entirely mechanical. During the demonstration in Braunschweig, a person brings the packages from the mobile interim storage facility to the small delivery robot. The handover was not the focus of the project, says scientist Hegerhorst. The focus of the project was the collaboration between the two robots, which are monitored and coordinated by a system.

The robots are intended to be used primarily in cities where many people receive packages. Regular operation could take place “in the medium future,” says the vehicle technician, and speaks of five to ten years as a possible time window until use in regular operation.

Other EU states are further ahead

Experts from other universities who were not involved in the LogiSmile project also see the topic positively. “Delivery has a lot of potential, after all, the parcel industry is desperately looking for workers and the robots could relieve the staff burden,” says Kai-Oliver Schocke from the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences. Other EU states are further along in this regard; delivery robots are already being used in the Baltics, for example. “Germany is late.”

The logistics professor points out that such robots are not suitable for every environment. “In inner cities, the sidewalks are sometimes blocked with e-scooters and bicycles, there are cobblestones, the curbs are sometimes high and sometimes low – all of these are uncertainty factors that make it difficult to move quickly.”

So far no breakthrough in Germany’s parcel industry

The mail and parcel industry has been working on robot concepts with scientists for a long time. She has not yet achieved a breakthrough. From 2016 to 2017, Hermes tested an autonomous vehicle in Hamburg that brought packages from the Hermes shop to the recipient. The technology was still in an early prototype stage, says a Hermes spokeswoman, looking back on the project at the time. We have had interesting experiences. “But it was simply too early for regular use in parcel delivery.”

In 2017, competitor DHL tested a “PostBOT” for letter delivery in Bad Hersfeld, Hesse. This robotic vehicle was only intended as a support: it drove behind postmen who were walking and transported their shipments. Its capacity was 150 kilos. The project was discontinued after some time.

Association skeptical: economic viability unlikely in the foreseeable future

DPD came the furthest – not in Germany, but in Great Britain. The company deployed delivery robots in the city of Milton Keynes in 2022 to deliver up to 30 parcels per day. When asked how things were going, a DPD spokesman said that the robots were still in use. In the summer of 2023, the project was expanded to ten cities. “So you could say it was a success,” said the DPD spokesman. However, there are no plans to expand it to Germany for the time being.

The German parcel industry association Biek does not have too high expectations on the subject. Its boss Marten Bosselmann sees the use of robots on the last mile as fundamentally positive, but also says: “Practical use cases that gradually increase in large quantities and are economically worthwhile are rather unlikely in the foreseeable future.” Autonomous vehicles in delivery logistics are currently still in the experimental and research stage. In the future, however, autonomous delivery vehicles could play an important role in parcel delivery, says Bosselmann, emphasizing the importance of nationwide, secure broadband internet, which is necessary for the use of robots.