Cold chain management revolution: UAV, robot and locker

Cold chain management revolution: UAV, robot and locker

Natalia Pięta
June 18, 2020  | 7 min read

Revolutionary solutions for cold chain management are finally here! Discover how UAVs, robots and lockers extend the freshness of products, feed people or even save human lives.

Time is your worst enemy when delivering perishable goods - food, medicines, and biomedical material. That is why the "smarter" the supply chain is, the better for... everyone! What do we mean? Well, by shortening the physical distance between the producer/retailer and the consumer, fewer goods are lost and medical help may be more effective.

Unfortunately, it is not always possible to produce and sell food or medicines locally, so the matter of time stays even more valid - we have to import them. And what about the roads that are hard to get trough? Yes, this is also an issue.

Smart cold chain management solutions

To solve these problems, supply chain managers have found simple and effective ways to slow down decomposition processes during transportation and storage. They keep products at the right temperatures and in the right air conditions with:

You also need to know that there are numerous trials undertaken to speed up, optimise and cut costs of the last mile delivery of temperature-sensitive products. And it seems that we can make it even faster, cheaper and more convenient for consumers without compromising quality.

Refrigerated parcel lockers

Food-oriented lockers solutions keep the right temperature with cooling systems. They ensure the comfort of a consumer with availability and quality - you can pick up your food fresh even after a few hours of storage.



The service called Lodówkomat is pioneered by a well-known Polish delivery provider operating internationally – InPost.

lodowkomat - refrigerated parcel locker - cold chain

It merges the idea of outsourcing grocery shopping with a convenient collection of the package from the refrigerated machine available 24/7/365.

The customers do not have to be at home at the delivery time and can collect their parcel on their way home at any suitable moment of the day. At the same time, the refrigerated lockers have compartments with temperatures of +16C, +4C and -18C, which allow storage of different types of produce, including frozen food, in the right conditions.



A very similar system appeared at the beginning of 2020 in Finland. Parcel machines combine storage at room and refrigerator temperatures to ensure high quality of goods. The service delivered by Smartmile is directed to customers who buy groceries online.

Cold chain management solution: robotic parcel machineThis robotic parcel machine with cold storage space is a great example of innovation that eases shopping as it allows consumers to pick up all their parcels from one pick up point.


Lunchbox by Sodexo - cold chain management solution for office

Sodexo makes a lunch break more enjoyable for office employees. Lunchbox by Sodexo is an innovative service based on Ricoh's refrigerated Smart Lockers. The company supports flexible workplaces. This means giving the possibility to choose between the company cafeteria and an easy and immediate take-away service.

This is a very effective service, which allows us to pay ever greater attention to work-life balance and to issues such as well-being and time saving, fundamental aspects for both us and our customers - said Alexis Lerouge, Head of Marketing Corporate Med Region of Sodexo.

Cold chain management in the air

Drones and UAVs help to deliver goods in the air. Management systems behind these solutions differ from simply storing food or medicine. In such chains, transportation conditions are very important.


Flirtey beats Amazon and Google in the US with a drone delivery system

The first company to receive FAA approval to conduct drone deliveries beyond the visual line of sight in the US was Flirtey. They were granted approval in March 2019, and in this respect, they managed to leave behind such giants as Amazon and Google.

The company not only introduced its drones for delivery, but also designed custom packaging that ensures the cold and warm cargo keeps its temperature, and fragile load stays intact.

The management system is simple here:
  1. you open the application on your smartphone,
  2. you push a button in order to order over-the-counter medications or food,
  3. then Flirtey loads up a package,
  4. the drone flies to the destination point basing on GPS coordinates - this point can be the customer's home or simply a smartphone location,
  5. and when the customer is ready to receive the ordered goods, the drone hovers over and lowers down the package.


6 miles in 6 minutes with Wing Aviation

In spring 2019, Wing Aviation – a company owned by Alphabet – launched a free 10-minute trial distribution service in Europe (Finland), and in autumn 2019 their service was launched in Virginia in the US. 

Months in advance, drone delivery user experience studies and re-design were conducted in partnership with local Australian food & drink shops and pharmacies. The company promises:

  • very short delivery times (6 miles in 6 minutes!)
  • low prices, because of the efficiency of drone delivery
  • low environmental impact, since the drones are fully electric

Although more and more drones are introduced in the food and cold chain, the technology is still far from wide commercialisation. But there are already other, more powerful implementations of them, in the places where you might not expect them.

Prescription medicines delivery

In autumn 2019 appeared yet another cold chain management revolution. UPS, the giant logistics company, launched a small drone delivery operation for another purpose - transporting medical samples within the hospital network premises on WakeMed Raleigh campus in North Carolina, US. 

Just a month later, UPS together with CVS Health Corporation, started using drones for deliveries of prescription medicines to CVS customers households. What is more - UPS Flight ForwardTM services are being offered also in combination with truck delivery for more efficient delivery in rural areas.

When can't pass the road, send UAVs

While the drone race between delivery and logistics giants is a quite well-known fact, there is not enough media coverage on the far more impactful use of UAVs for transportation of medicines, blood and vaccines in developing countries with poor transportation infrastructure.


Revolutionary management process in developing countries

In Rwanda more than 80% of roads are unpaved, making most of the country inaccessible by road during the rainy season. You can say that the infrastructure does not exist. Fortunately, Zipline start-up brings over an agile pharmaceutical supply chain with electric drones. The company has already completed over 31,000 commercial deliveries of lifesaving products in Rwanda and Tanzania.

How does the management system look like in Zipline's services?

  1. The company builds suitable distribution centres that can serve an area of 22,500+ square kilometres (8,750+ square mile) each.
  2. They take orders from medical centres - it takes 5 minutes on average from order to launching a drone with eg. blood for the mother giving birth
  3. They send UAVs (which are independent of road quality) to the destination point.
  4. The packages are dropped with a parachute, and the small plane that is used for delivery gets safely back to the base.

The most interesting thing about Zipline company is innovation. They have developed the solution with GPS, QR codes, radio receivers, and web & mobile apps.

The video explains the design problems and reveals innovation ideas:


Cold chain management in most extreme environments

Also, a consortium that includes Direct Relief, Merck, Softbox (creators of a payload box), AT&T and Volans-I has organised multiple pilots including the use of drones in the delivery of temperature-sensitive medicines in Switzerland, Bahamas, and Puerto Rico.

They not only enabled temperature control at temperatures of as low as -70°C but also managed to track it all along the way.

Those optimistic reports are accompanied by results of the first scientific studies on using drones in the pharmaceutical supply chain, which suggest that indeed even some temperature changes and vibrations during flights are not harmful to medicines such as e.g. insulin.

Wheel robots experiment

One of the first companies to introduce pilot projects with drone company Flirtey was Domino’s pizza. 

Despite the fact that UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and autonomous vehicles are not yet a common technology, Domino’s policy is to experiment a lot around their delivery to build a competitive advantage and cut future costs. 

For example, in Europe, they partnered with Starship Technologies to test the delivery robot that rides on sidewalks. And there are more and more companies producing top delivery robots: Kiwi, Robomart, TeleRetail, Amazon Scout, FedEx Delivery Robot - just to name a few.


The limitations of tech innovations in cold chain management

Whereas all the above implementations of drones are already technologically feasible, large-scale adoption of new unmanned vehicles and robots as carriers in the last mile of supply chains in the upcoming years is not a certainty. The same applies to the refrigerated parcel lockers.

There are definitely many potential pros of the above innovations:

  • better accuracy and convenience of delivery, especially if the customer changes locations
  • greater accessibility of products in rural areas - for people living outside the grid of well-developed infrastructure
  • significant shortening of the time of delivery of any package, but above all - when we consider UAVs - life-saving pharmaceuticals and food and water supplies in disaster areas
  • lower costs of delivery due to speeding it up and lower manpower costs

Technical challenges and concerns

There are many technical limitations for UAVs and other robots:

  • relatively low loading capacity - most existing UAVs are capable of handling cargo not heavier than ab. 1.5 kilos (ab. 3 pounds). It is better for wheeled vehicles though.
  • very limited range - due to the capacity of batteries, most of the machines can fly/drive for no longer than 15-30 minutes and then need to recharge. That is not much.
  • navigating a drone in urban areas is very difficult - most UAV proof-of-concept trials have been so far conducted in rural areas and on open spaces, and it is far more difficult to navigate a drone in areas full of physical obstacles, densely populated and highly dynamic.
  • severe weather conditions make it difficult to use UAVs - they have problems operating under e.g. gusty winds, intense heat or freezing rain.
  • potential catastrophic accidents can occur due to technical problems - the technology is under fast development and is not yet mature.
  • common communication protocols, rules, technical standards, and requirements have to be further developed by multiple public and private stakeholders and met by drone delivery companies.

Business vs technology

Also, some business advantages of using these new technologies will be accompanied by disadvantages:

  • quite high insurance costs for service providers, and - in general - high costs of overall operations, because of the technical instability of drones and robots in the initial phase.
  • the problem of theft of cargo and machines - if a drone does not land for delivering the package, then there is no option of ensuring the cargo got to the right hands. If drone lands or a robot stops for delivery, it can be stolen or damaged itself. And all the above-mentioned innovations, including the lockers, are also prone to cyber-attacks.

Society vs technology

Finally, some societal challenges and concerns need to be addressed for the responsible use of emerging technologies in last-mile delivery:

  • orchestration of drone and robot movement in public space is needed - which includes movement of UAVs within airspace shared with traditional aircraft, and of robots on the public roads.
  • noise pollution may rise noticeably - especially in the cities when fleets of drones start operating.
  • ensuring citizen privacy will be a challenge since drones and robots use cameras and GPS for navigation and environment monitoring. Some citizens, neighbourhoods and municipalities may restrict their property and areas as drone-free and robot-free.
  • public security concernsas stated by Bob Lieb, while we prefer not to think about it much, we have to be aware that it may be very easy e.g. for terrorists or criminals to build a drone or a robot that mimics a delivery machine and use it for criminal and potentially deadly purposes.

It might also be very difficult to control cargos that are shipped by autonomous delivery machines or stored in different types of delivery lockers.

To sum up

The innovation in cold chain management is definitely on its way, but we still need to understand the consequences and prepare for it well as a society.

While delivery convenience is king in 2020, we still have to decide under what circumstances it is worth more than our safety, privacy and peaceful environment.

And what do you think about it?