Quick Stop Box: New drop-box Prototype

Since July 2021 the Purolator Digital Lab has been working on a renewed drop-box design.  In late January 2022 we rolled out our first functional prototype into the field.

This is the first of a two part blog series on the Quick Stop Box.  Part 1 focuses on the motivation and the engineering improvements.  Part 2 discusses the software and IoT infrastructure we introduced.

Improving on Ol' Reliable

The reliable, uncomplicated parcel drop-box design has remained unchanged since the 1980's.  While the track record is enviable, it feels like an opportunity wasted.  For some customers, these boxes are the front-line of their interaction with Purolator.  For drivers, they can be the bane of their day if a key is forgotten at the terminal.

Working with the Retail group at Purolator, who operate the drop-boxes, we identified a few areas for improvement:  capacity, security (including access control), and operational visibility.

Ultra-Low Power

An over-arching restriction on the design is access to power.  Many drop-boxes won't have access to plug-in electricity. In Canada, solar power is at a premium depending on the latitude, weather (snow cover), and orientation of the box.

Our goal is to have the box operate on battery power for at least 6 months with regular usage, and top-up to infinity hours (well, the operational life of the battery) using solar panels anywhere Purolator services that has sunlight.   A plug-in version is required for inside commercial locations and in the far north.

Capacity and Parcel Security

Current drop-boxes feature a flap that opens towards the customer, used to place a parcel in the box.  This design has simple, effective user-experience, but has two major drawbacks:

  • Security - A bad actor can open the flap and place their hand into the box to remove a parcel.
  • Reduced capacity - Parcels must "slide" down from the opening into the box, meaning the box is operationally full if it's about half full.

The door of the drop-box is operated with a key.  These keys can be lost, forgotten, or confused with other keys.  The lock is visible from the outside, and a target for a motivated bad actor with a lock-pick or a drill.

Operational Visibility

The operations teams don't always know who emptied or opened the drop-boxes.  This is important information in any loss investigation, or operational improvement planning.

Perhaps most importantly, Purolator would love to know whether boxes should be visited by a driver: a skipped pick-up of an empty drop-box provides meaningful cost savings, while skipping a box with a parcel waiting is bad customer experience.

Understanding the pattern of when drop-boxes are used by customers can also provide helpful data to our operations groups.

The Drawer

We replaced the "flap" on the front of the drop-box with a drawer mechanism designed by our engineer Anreet.

The drawer offers the same intuitive customer experience, while significantly reducing access to the inside of the box.  The drawer is wider, and supports placing larger boxes into the drop-box than with the previous design.  It was fabricated with a smooth soft-close mechanism and graphics that makes it feel quite premium.

Quite a bit of work went into the flap mechanism that pushes the parcel down into the box cavity.  This setup increases the capacity of the box by approximately 30%, and encourages parcels to fall "flat" rather than on their side.

The Door

Much of the teams innovation focused on replacing the keyed door lock with an electronically controlled door lock.   The lock was removed from the outside of the door to avoid being picked or drilled.  It has been placed deeper into the box, secured with a plate, and actuated by a controller board developed for this project.

The lock has been replaced with an NFC reader, hooked up to a "wake up" button that quickly wakes up the authentication mechanism.  In Part II we'll discuss the cloud setup that authorizes the mobile app to open the door!

All the Sensors

PDL engineer James focused his efforts on the electrical components of the Quick Stop Box, starting with the "dual board" setup required for ultra-low power usage, while maintaining the energy-costly LTE data connection to the cloud.

We introduced sensors and electronics to operate:

  • parcel detection at various levels within the box cavity
  • knock, theft detection
  • door and access panel opening and sensing
  • NFC reader for authorization
  • LTE data connectivity to the internet

In one of our Hack Days the team also introduced an ePaper prototype solution, that adds a dynamic element to the interaction with the customer.  Today we use it to display the last pickup time of this unit.

All of the electronics are quite compact, tucked out of the way of the drawer in the "dead space" of the box capacity.

Harness and PCBs

A key piece of work to make the prototype professional and deploy-worthy was the development of a custom PCB (rather than bread-board and hand-soldering).  Additionally, James created a custom wire harness with appropriate connectors to wire up the setup inside the box.

This piece of work has significantly raised the "professionalism" of the box, but also adds meaningful cost at operational scale.

Solar Power

Lastly, the box was fitted with a custom solar panel solution that "tilts away" for access to critical service components.  The electronics are powered by a small industrial battery, trickle charged by available solar power. So far we're successfully trending towards infinity uptime on the power supply.

The panel itself doesn't impact the footprint of the box in the deployed location, is out of the way to avoid damage, and puts Purolator's commitments to using green energy on display.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Big thanks to our Product Engineering team at the Digital Lab for their fast and innovative work on the QSB.  This week was a wonderful milestone, after the rush and challenges of December.

While we're trying to do as much as we can inside the Lab, we've been growing our vendor and partner engagements, which will be important if we operationalize the Quick Stop Box en masse to the field.