Place a meal order on your smartphone and get it delivered by a robot. Future utopia? Not entirely. In the Finnish capital of Helsinki, innovations like this get tested in real-life environments before hitting the market. Here we share what it’s like to experiment novel services in urban labs.
Last fall, a small robot was moving about on its own in a downtown shopping centre in Helsinki, delivering meals on demand from a local supermarket to nearby residents. Customers placed their orders via the building’s own smart living service app, whereupon the delivery robot took the orders from the shop directly to the customers’ doors.
The aim of the robot pilot run in the smart city area of Kalasatama was coordinated by the city of Helsinki’s innovation company Forum Virium with its partners SRV and KONE. We wanted to learn how autonomous couriers could address last meter delivery challenges in everyday urban settings. Could the likes of our ASUM-1 robot be a part of smart living services in the future?
Planning the concept
Beforehand, we had opened a dialogue with the city and company partners on potential interest in investigating last mile related issues in urban deliveries. Furthermore, we had been mapping the last mile logistics needs from the residents’ perspective in the Kalasatama area. The Home-on-Demand concept raised from the needs of the residents.
Reaching out for collaboration partners
The REDI commercial center turned out to be a perfect setting for testing a delivery robot indoors. SRV, the building company behind the residential building connected to the center, was very interested in developing smart living services for the residents. The elevator company KONE contributed with the lift interfaces for the technology partner and was eager to learn about the experiences from autonomous mobility. The local supermarket, K-Supermarket REDI, was also interested in testing the delivery robot as part of their everyday operations.
“The REDI shopping centre together with Majakka form a good environment for the pilot. It’s great to acquire practical knowledge of how smart lifts could be a part of autonomous mobility in urban environments, offering better services to residents to make daily life smoother”, says Mirva Nevalainen, Head of Partner Operations at KONE.
When framing the challenge, we reached out to robotic companies in late 2019 with a workshop run to specify the focus of the pilot. An open call was launched in spring 2020, receiving a dozen offers.The team selected to run the pilot in Helsinki were the technology company Dimalog specializing in mobile and collaborative robotics, Omron robot and the design company Muotohiomo.
Co-creation with residents
The newly moved-in residents of the tallest building in Finland, the Majakka highrise, had a vital role in the pilot, as they got to know what it’s like to live in an urban lab. Close collaboration with the housing company was essential to make the pilot happen.
“The design of the Kalasatama high-rises has focused on the residents and new services making their life easier. A dense urban centre is a favourable platform for innovations, and it’s great to see that people here aren’t afraid to try new things,” says SRV’s Development Manager of Housing Services Lotta Toivonen.
Not only were the residents the actual customers of the piloted service, but they also co-defined the service offering. A user survey was conducted to validate the details of the service. 15 percent of the Majakka residents answered the e-questionnaire. According to the survey, the robot delivery service was seen as an especially intriguing solution when working from home, when ill or hosting a party. The local supermarket found the results of the survey useful in planning the menu options, which would then be offered via the resident application.
Mapping the environment
Before the actual piloting started in the REDI shopping centre, the team mapped the future route of the autonomous robot. The aim was to plan a safe passage through the public space. Visuals were installed on all the floors where the robot would move, giving the customers a heads-up and informing them about the whistling sound, which would indicate that the robot was approaching.
Planning social interaction
The design studio Muotohiomo, spent a lot of time exploring what kind of different aspects needed to be taken into account when moving the delivery robot about in the public space. The team wanted the robot to be as approachable as possible. However, only light visual modifications were possible in terms of the short pilot.
”The fact that the robot would be operating in public created an extra challenge for us. We wanted the robot to be seen as sympathetic, rather than just an industrial gadget. A happy medium was found by keeping the robot-like nature, but adding a few familiar twists: the number 53 along with the “Herbie stripes” – the characteristics from the famous comedy movie The Love Bug from 1968,” says Managing Director Pekka Toivanen.
“One of the best results was the fact that the robot was recognized on duty and became an interactive person in social media during the piloting”, Toivanen adds.
To complete the looks, a register plate with the robot’s name ASUM-1 was included. ASUMI is the name of the digital platform of smart living services for the residents of the Majakka highrise. This way the robot courier was connected with the existing service.
It was clear that the robot needed to make a sound in order to let people know that it was on the move. Different types of sounds were tested with Dimalog, but when the robot whistled for the first time – a bit like the legendary R2-D2 from Star Wars – we knew we had all pieces in place.
The robot was taught a few polite lines to enable smooth encounters with people in the elevators and when delivering goods. The robot introduced itself by saying “I am the new delivery robot of Redi. Nice to meet you!” While in the elevator, the robot engaged in small talk by stating that “I can’t press the button, but luckily we speak the same language”.
Out in the living lab setting
How to secure first experiences with a robot moving about by itself in a commercial center? A design student was overseeing the deliveries and helping the robot to open and close a couple of heavy fire safety doors in the maintenance corridors. The visuals of the robot and the route markings on the floors worked out just as planned. Throughout the pilot, the robot received a lot of attention from interested bypassers. Sometimes the robot got a bit confused when the elevators were busy multiple times in a row, but beyond that, it was very independent. The robot moved autonomously, navigated by itself, whistled to alert, communicated when needed and was always on time.
“So far most of the robot projects we have done have been for industrial environments, so this was a great opportunity for us to design something from the perspective of ordinary people and smart buildings”, says Teemu Kytömäki, CTO of Dimalog.
What we learned
Our experiences confirmed that an autonomous courier service really works in a hybrid commercial and residential indoor environment. The pilot was a great way to gather learnings, and the feedback from the residents was positive.
“As Majakka residents, we are proud to be testing something new and unique. We hope that the positive experiences of the pilot will be helpful in the development of similar services in the future,” says Jari Ojala, chair of the board of Helsinki’s REDI Majakka housing company.
The experimentation phase focused on the aspects of autonomous mobility, accessibility and on end user experience. During the four weeks of intense testing, a total of 86 food orders were made via the service app and delivered by the autonomous ASUM-1 robot. Piloting during the covid lockdown was also an opportunity to test how people respond to a non human courier. The technical connections between the robot and the elevators worked well, and the customers were pleased. Next, it would be interesting to pilot different business models and commercial scalability of the service.
Forum Virium Helsinki will continue to tackle last meter delivery challenges. In an upcoming pilot we’ll test a delivery robot assisting the healthcare personnel with food logistics.
Kalasatama district in the east end of Helsinki center is a former brownfield area, developed to a residential district. The district under development is the model smart city district in Helsinki, and an urban laboratory for smart and sustainable solutions.
6AIKA New solutions for Citylogistics (2018-2020).The main goal of the project was to make city logistics smoother and more efficient in collaboration with companies in the logistics sector and companies that use logistics services. The pilot was run and funded as part of the project activities
Photo: Vesa Laitinen
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