“Robots will replace human labor for indoor delivery in the future with higher efficiency and lower costs,” Yao Jincheng, founder and CEO of robot maker 3S Robotics, predicted at Beyond Expo on Saturday. 

Now widely used in shopping malls, office buildings, hotels and residential areas, robots are especially apt for solving the “last-100-meter-delivery problem,” or the final stop step of delivering products to a customer, according to Yao.

Yao’s comments come against the backdrop of a rising industry. The global market for indoor delivery robots was valued at $6.1 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 17% to reach $158 billion by 2027, showed a report by research agency Astute Analytica.

In addition to making deliveries, service robots are also undertaking a number of other roles, such as giving directions, taking care of the elderly or the disabled, assisting medical diagnosis and treatment, education, and entertainment.

Di Min, chairman of service robot maker Nanjing University Electronics, said he believed that technology and market resources are helping propel the sector. The company, which is mainly engaged in developing service robots for banks and financial institutions, says its robots have been deployed in more than 220,000 bank branches in China. 

Zhu Hanqi, CEO and founder of Enhanced Robotics, added that the industrialization and upgrading of the supply chain is providing another boost for the scaled application of robots. “Thanks to the rise of DJI, the price of drone motors dropped as the supply chain matured,” he said. 

“In contrast with internet companies, the service robot industry needs support from manufacturers along the industrial chain. That’s why the manufacturing centers in China, like the Greater Bay area and areas around Jiangsu province, are more advanced in the sector,” said Zhu, whose company develops AI-enabled consumer exoskeletons for fitness and hiking.

The commercial application of robots at scale still faces a number of challenges however. Beyond simply developing the best hardware, companies in the sector must take into consideration the regulations surrounding use of indoor delivery robots in commercial spaces as well as how they can be adapted to existing infrastructure, according to Yao, who cited the case of providing service robots for the Beyond Expo as an example. 

“To prepare for the event, we spent more than one month testing our delivery and temperature-taking robots in six hotels that accommodate Beyond Expo participants under the guidance of Macau travel agencies and hygiene authorities,” he explained.

Emma Lee (Li Xin) was TechNode's e-commerce and new retail reporter until June 2022, when she moved to Sixth Tone to cover technology and consumption. Get in touch with her via lixin@sixthtone.com or Twitter.