April 9, 2018 (RARC-WP-18-006)

  • Autonomous mobile robots have grabbed the interest of postal operators and logistics companies for their potential to cut costs, increase efficiency, and enable new services.
  • The Postal Service has a long history of piloting early forms of robots in sorting centers but has yet to really test the latest generation of robots for sorting and delivery.
  • Although it will be many years before the technology is mature enough to be fully scalable, USPS would benefit from testing autonomous mobile robots for potentially assisting carriers, offering on demand delivery, and speeding up mail transport in sorting centers.

Robots that deliver food and packages to customers are quickly making a name for themselves in cities around the country, such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Such autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), which use sensors and navigation technology to move around without human intervention, have a long history of successful use inside sorting centers and warehouses too.

In fact, the Postal Service has tested different robots in various sorting centers over the past thirty years, and plans an even larger rollout of new pilots at 25 facilities in 2018. So far, USPS has succeeded in reducing workhours and processing time by using robots that replace heavy equipment, such as forklifts and tuggers, for transport of mail around a facility. Looking to the future, OIG research suggests a new generation of smaller and nimbler robots could further help speed up processing and use space more efficiently.

Delivery robots are still too economically and technologically immature to be fully scalable in the short term. However, it would still be worthwhile for the Postal Service to conduct small-scale tests and pilots, as other worldwide posts have done, to test how the technology fits into the Postal Service’s unique operating environment. Public perception of delivery robots is favorable, and the technology offers brand improvement potential, especially by offering faster and more convenient service to customers. The OIG’s new research details use cases for both fully autonomous delivery and AMRs that follow and assist a carrier.   

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