‘Neubie’ Sails through the Last-Mile Delivery

With increasing numbers of customers visiting e-commerce to shop, the competition in deliveries is becoming more intense. Customers can now get their ordered products from big retailers like Amazon within a day. To cut down their delivery time less than their competitors, retailers have turned their heads to last-mile delivery, the final step of the delivery process, also the most expensive.

Since the pandemic outbreak, people’s demand for e-commerce and the following last-mile delivery has been higher than ever, and so is the price. Simply put, last-mile delivery occurs when people’s orders are “out-for-delivery”. Assigned couriers visit destined addresses one by one and sometimes fail to deliver them all when there are too many orders for one day. As for the couriers working with the food delivery platform Baemin, the biggest platform in South Korea, the delivery price charged on the customer’s end is up to 20,000 won ($US 15) if in horrid weather conditions or at peak hours. 

To complement the labour shortage and high delivery prices in the last-mile delivery market, Korea-based startup Neubility introduces its in-house, self-driving delivery robot “Neubie”.

Courtesy of Neubility
Courtesy of Neubility

At Your Service: ‘Neubie’ the Delivery Robot

Neubility is a start-up founded in November 2017 that builds self-driving robots and provides delivery platform services. As of May 2022, the team consisted of 60 employees, including 20 people with master’s and higher degrees in engineering-related majors. 

Neubie the robot is the company’s main selling product. It is a box-shaped robot with four wheels and two big shiny eyes. Neubility explains that the robot is 67 centimetres long, 56 centimetres wide, and 69 centimetres high – big enough to hold small to medium-sized packages. The robot can carry up to 40 kilograms and wheels down the roads as fast as most people’s walking speed.

Neubie’s main duty is delivering products to the customers independently, without any human assistance. The robot can detect obstacles of various sizes, heights and moving directions, from a small dog in front to a bicycle from behind. When an obstacle approaches the robot, Neubie can automatically calculate its speed within seconds and avoid it, Neubility explains.

When Neubie arrives at its doors to deliver, customers should scan the QR code on the robot’s screen to confirm their identities. Once confirmed, the customers can open the robot and retrieve the ordered items.

What makes Neubie special compared to its competitors is how cost-efficient it is. The price of the robot is more than five million won ($US 3,700), which is one-fourth of the price of other delivery robots in the market. 

Neubility says they could reduce production costs by attaching cameras to detect surroundings instead of using expensive LiDAR sensors. LiDAR sensor enables the machines and systems to map out the surroundings in a three-dimensional view. Neubie, on the other hand, relies on 10 cameras and three sensors installed around its body to navigate through still or moving objects. Powered by V-SLAM, the multi-camera-based sensor, and sensor fusion, Neubie can find its directions in dense building forests without much difficulty. It also uses radar, stereo cameras, and other object detection technologies powered by artificial intelligence to avoid objects in longer ranges and identify commutable areas on its own.

Courtesy of Neubility

In addition, the company was able to save costs by developing most software and hardware in-house. Rather than outsourcing the technologies, the company’s internal teams built the system and the machine designs to “optimize the resources” over the years. This also saves the maintenance cost of Neubie in the future, as most services can be done at the company instead of inquiring outsourced companies.

Neubility has made 38 Neubie robots so far and has dispatched its inventions out in the field. Last fall, in collaboration with the automated kitchenware start-up Future Kitchen, Neubie delivered fried chickens to residents in Songdo, Incheon, mostly completed within an hour. Also, from December 2021 to February 2022, the robot delivered items from a Seven-Eleven convenience store to the customers’ homes and workplaces in Seocho, Seoul. From October, the robots are on another three-month trial, delivering items from three Seven-Eleven stores in the same district.

When golfers order a food product from a tablet computer attached to a cart, Newbie locates the golfer and delivers the product to them. Some brands have already hired Neubie for their businesses. For example, Ananti Joongang Golf Club, a golf club in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, has had six Neubies as their serving staff since this March.

Taking Another Step Forward with Neubie

Neubility’s current focus is business-to-business sales, trying to attract more companies to its Neubie rental service. According to the company’s plan, the first 200 robots will be out for rent by the end of this year, and more than 5,000 will be by 2025. In addition, the company will launch its in-house robot-delivery platform, “NeubieGo”, where customers can place orders for Neubie’s deliveries by the end of this year. According to TechCrunch’s report, the platform will be a package of solutions that can be combined with other existing app platforms.

The trials before the official launch are also expected to speed up with the revision in the Korean law about self-driving robots. The current Road Traffic Act defines self-driving robots like Neubie as “vehicles”, not “pedestrians”. Thus, Neubie’s “operators” had to follow behind their paths in the past trials as Neubies are “cars”, legally speaking. However, in July, the government announced its plan to amend the law by next year, allowing robots like Neubie to be on pedestrian roads and wheel through crosswalks without an operator. The plan also included permitting the robots to enter public parks.

By employing more Neubies, the company believes the delivery cost per order can be reduced to 2,000 won ($US 1.50) or lower. If brands and restaurants pay the delivery fee by themselves, instead of passing it on to the customers, the customers might pay a $ 1,000 or lower fee for their deliveries. Also, people will be able to locate the robot’s real-time locations during their deliveries through an app, tracking the whereabouts of their much-awaited orders.

Neubie is designed for deliveries within a less than a mile radius, 1.5 kilometres more precisely, which is not preferred by human couriers who get more pay when they go for extra distance for deliveries. Neubility explains that Neubie specifically targets shops and restaurants that are “too far to go by walking” but “too close to ask a human courier to pick up their deliveries”. The company says that more Neubies in the market will not necessarily mean fewer human delivery couriers, i.e. “taking away their jobs”. 

Neubie will soon be spotted outside of South Korea as well. Last October, Neubility partnered with Goggo Network, an “autonomous mobility as a service” company based in Berlin, Paris, and Madrid, and started trial runs in busy districts in Spain. Neubie recently also won the Innovation Award of CES 2023, earning a chance to showcase their product in Las Vegas from January 5 to 8 next year.

“Based on our successful test-driving results, the company will strive to secure a higher level of technological competitiveness,” Neubility’s CEO Lee Sang-min said in the press release. “We will quickly build leadership in the domestic and overseas autonomous driving robot markets,” he added. 

Sunny Um is a Seoul-based journalist working with 4i Magazine. She writes and talks about policies, business updates, and social issues around the Korean tech industry. She is best known for in-depth explanations of local issues for readers who need a better understanding of the Korean context. Sunny’s works appeared in prominent Korean news outlets, such as the Korea Times and Wired Korea. She currently makes regular writing contributions to newsrooms worldwide, such as Maritime Fairtrade, a non-profit media organization based in Singapore. She also works as a content strategist at 1021 Creative. A person who holds a Master’s degree in Political Economy from King’s College London, she loves to follow up on news of Korean politics and economy when she’s not writing.