Drones and robots are about to make junk food available to children 24/7

Autonomous vehicles – like drones and footpath robots – are expected to amplify concerns around kids and junk food, with new food delivery modes amping up the availability, affordability and advertising of unhealthy products.

As independent MP and former GP Sophie Scamps introduces a bill into the Australian parliament to restrict junk food advertising to children, experts are warning the situation is about to get worse.

A study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health says governments need to prepare for the rise of autonomous 24/7 junk food delivery and the potential health consequences for children. The paper proposes a set of precautionary policy responses.

What sounds like a futuristic scenario is already unfolding as Wing drones deliver snacks, drinks and groceries to residents of South East Queensland and Canberra. In other parts of the world, footpath robots are rapidly rolling out as a ‘last mile delivery solution’ in many European and North American cities.

Professor Simone Pettigrew heads the food policy and the commercial determinants of health at the George Institute for Global Health, and is lead author of the paper.

The research involved interviews with 40 experts across technology, transport, government and health to identify trends and concerns.

Pettigrew says while autonomous vehicles offer certain social benefits like helping an ageing population to stay mobile and connected, the experts raised concerns about the unhealthy combination of online ordering and food delivery systems with autonomous vehicles.

Unhealthy food, drinks and alcohol are already becoming cheaper and more accessible to children, she says. The concern with autonomous delivery modes is that the technology will amplify those effects by taking the human labour cost and administration element out of it.

Without needing to pay a human driver, the cost of delivery comes down with autonomous vehicles, and “you can have these things going 24/7” Pettigrew says.

She adds, delivery vehicles could also become mobile billboards, bringing fast food advertising onto suburban streets.

“For example, if you think about the ice cream truck of yesteryear, so you would be in your lounge room on a Sunday afternoon, you hadn’t thought about an ice cream, but suddenly you hear the tinkling sound and you want one […] this can be ramped up to the nth degree with those vehicles just roaming streets, using big data to identify good conquests in the street.”

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A footpath robot delivers pizza in Berlin / Credit: Annette Riedl/picture alliance via Getty Images

Experts interviewed for the research also flagged concerns about footpath robots interfering with healthy active transport like walking and cycling. 

“it’s already becoming quite difficult just to be a pedestrian or a cyclist in our environments. And we really don’t want the commercial delivery of junk food and alcohol to make that even worse,” she says.

The authors want governments to act now with pre-emptive policies to minimise harms before it’s too late. 

“Like our Uber experience, it’ll suddenly be here and retrospectively trying to deal with it is going to be very problematic.”

“We just need to make sure that before these things become entrenched, we’ve got rules around what they can and can’t do,” Pettigrew says.

The paper sets out a number of recommendations.

These include banning specific types of vehicles, like footpath robots, which interfere with active transport modes. 

Pettigrew argues there is also need for mandatory exposure to nutrition information like a Health Star Rating and warnings when people order online via an app. It took 25 years to achieve pregnancy warning labels on alcohol, she says, but those warnings are now made invisible in online ordering systems like Uber Eats.

The paper calls for governments to consider higher charges for unhealthy products to counteract their increasing affordability and accessibility.

Finally, recommendations include location restrictions, or ‘no go zones’ preventing or limiting delivery to specific sites, like schools.

Pettigrew says there has been a lot of work trying to improve the food in school canteens, but “that’s all out the window if the kids can call their own pizza at lunchtime”.

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