'Polite' robots and underground tunnels: JD's vision for future smart cities

Key Points
  • With 51 billion of the world's 87 billion parcels needing to be shipped in the last year, JD.com Head of Research Hui said the company intends to one day be able to automate the entire delivery pipeline.
  • To do this, JD is developing concepts for subterranean delivery systems which can be included within the planning of smart cities, but also has a more immediate vision for above ground delivery robots with social awareness.

In the not too distant future, polite robots will roam the streets delivering packages and an underground tunnel network will be woven into city planning.

That is the vision of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com, its Head of Research Hui Cheng told a panel at CNBC's East Tech West conference in the Nansha district of Guangzhou, China on Tuesday.

With 51 billion of the world's 87 billion parcels needing to be shipped in the last year, Hui said JD intends to one day be able to automate the entire delivery pipeline, suggesting that this is a "golden stage for logistic automation and the logistical revolution."

To do this, the company is developing concepts for subterranean delivery systems which can be included within the planning of smart cities, but also has a more immediate vision for above ground delivery robots with social awareness.

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"Before that, when we have the robots on the surface autonomously delivering, we know that the robot is also going to represent us and represent the company," he said.
"Another concept we have been developing from early on is called social robotics, so how to make that robot polite."

Hui suggested that this will mean the robot will, for instance, if there are children playing in its path to its delivery, adapt its route and exhibit "social etiquette."

British start-up Magway recently announced that it is planning to build narrow underground tunnels and tracks to run beside U.K. freeways and beneath cities carrying parcels and groceries. The company hopes to build a network of pipes, less than 1 meter wide, to transport items in pods along a track powered by a magnetic motor.