Autonomous vehicles and robots are taking to the streets and sidewalks to deliver packages and food. Major players and start-ups are experimenting with ways for robots to deliver the goods. In some cases the customer has to go to the delivery robot or vehicle in others the agile robots deliver packages.
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“We’re still at the early stages of delivery robotics. Many established and start-up companies are testing various solutions. Tractica sees that the advantages of robotics are reduced costs compared with human delivery, speed of delivery, and reduction in pollution by vehicles,” says Glenn Sanders, senior analyst at Tractica.
He notes that obstacles to adoption include new regulations against delivery vehicles on sidewalks in crowded urban areas, congestion, the potential for theft and injury, and blocking access to wheelchairs or other mobility aids.
A Slice of the Driverless Delivery Market
Domino’s Pizza and robotic company Nuro recently announced they will be delivering pizzas with driverless pods in Houston, Texas, later this year. Nuro has been delivering groceries in Houston since March 2019 . Select customers will be able to order from participating Domino’s stores. After signing up they will be able to order, track the vehicle and get a pin to unlock the compartment holding the pizza when it arrives at their location.
The promotional image shows the Domino’s vehicle with two compartments, one for cold items such as drinks and salads and a separate compartment for hot food. The hot and cold option has not been finalised.
Domino’s spokesperson, Jenny Fouracre-Petko, says operational details are being worked on now. The final configuration of the vehicle is still being finalised, “We will have more details when we go to test later this year.”
Customers will only have access to their orders and not be able to steal other customer’s pizza, notes Fouracre-Petko, because the delivery robots are likely to only carry one order at a time.
The one-mile area surrounding UC Berkeley has been invaded by adorable food delivery Kiwibots with cute screen faces that smile and wink. Kiwibots are not fully autonomous, they have cameras and are operated by what the company calls ‘Parallel Autonomy’. The Kiwibots are supervised by remote humans in Medellín, Colombia. The robots don’t go to restaurants to pick up the food but are stocked by couriers at loading points.
Customers pay a monthly fee or a delivery charge and order meals through an app that records the customer’s geolocation. Kiwibots’ cuteness compels humans to pick them up when they fall however, Kiwibots have been called “sidewalk hogs” by pedestrians.
When robots use sidewalks they can be of concern to wheelchair users, especially on the campus at the University of California Berkeley.
Ben Perez, manager of Campus Access Services at the University of California, Berkeley, says: “As long as the Kiwibots use paths of travel reasonably and act as ‘good citizens’ of campus rights-of-way, they are simply another eccentricity of the Cal community. If in the future they are reported blocking building access or obstructing paths, we would take action to ensure that campus community members with disabilities are afforded equal access to university programs etc.”
He adds: “We have established procedures to respond to barriers encountered across our facilities and paths. More broadly, the Kiwibots are unsanctioned and are presently being tolerated, not condoned, by the university. The operator is aware that we consider them unattended personal property that is potentially subject to seizure and removal from campus under current campus regulations.”
In April, a Kiwibot was stolen by an irate substitute school teacher who was sick of seeing them on the sidewalk. The bot was found by police through GPS. Kiwibot is planning to launch at more college campuses this fall.
Not all cities have taken kindly to delivery robots on sidewalks. The city of San Francisco has banned delivery robots from most areas of the city.
FedEx Rolling on Roads & Sidewalks
FedEx in February, announced the FedEx SameDay Bot for deliveries within three miles of a store location built to travel on sidewalks and along roadsides using LiDAR and multiple cameras for navigation. FedEx is partnering with DEKA Development & Research Corp. and its founder Dean Kamen, the inventor of the iBot Personal Mobility Device and the Segway.
Retailers will be able to accept orders from nearby customers and deliver them by bot directly to customers’ doors on the same day.
“We have talked to several cities regarding testing, and have gotten positive feedback. We currently plan to begin testing this summer in Manchester, New Hampshire, our hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, and in Plano and Frisco, Texas,” says Shannon Davis spokesperson for FedEx.
As far as security, the design will include the ability to monitor the service the bot is providing. In the case when the bot falls over or gets stuck, the design will include the ability to deal with such events should they occur, confirmed Davis.
Dog Bot Combos
In the future, there will be a lot of goods delivered and e-commerce is a big market. Automated Vehicles can be fully utilized at other hours of the day when they’re not being used to transport people to and from work, says Jeremy McClain, head of Systems & Technology for the Chassis & Safety Division at Continental in North America.
Continental is showing their cascading delivery system. Robotic dogs about the size of an Irish Setter or Sheep Dog, (27.5 inches 69.85 cm tall) fetch packages from a robotic delivery vehicle, disembark from the vehicle, walk on the sidewalk, can step around obstacles and walk on the path to the front door, mount the stairs, then place packages on the porch.
Continental has two versions of the bot, there’s a four-legged quadruped and there is also a robot dog with an extra arm to place a package in a lockbox.
“We are looking at different solutions and listening to the public sector,” says McClain. ”We want to find out how we can best apply automation to solve problems.”
Because Continental is already working on many autonomous features for cars it is possible with economies of scale that the technology can be used for deliveries. One example of the first deployments could be the robotic delivery robot-dogs would work with letter carriers who monitor them making the delivery of mail much faster.
Continental is working on how the robots can be programmed to know the right of way. Most likely the robots will be deployed in a big subdivision where the sidewalks are not very busy. Although current versions have legs, they may also use wheeled models or drones in the future, notes McClain.
McClain imagines that there will be multiple options when buying things that are delivered via robots such as if the customer is willing to have a package delivered and pay extra for the robot to put it in the lockbox and also rent the lockbox from the carrier that’s providing the service.
Human-like Walking Bots
Ford invested in Agility Robotics, whose robots look more like humans and can carry packages up to 40 pounds (18.14 kg).
The robots are connected to a control vehicle that wirelessly gives the robot the data it needs to navigate to the door after leaving from the autonomous Ford delivery van. Mikhail Jones, VP of Software, says that Agility Robotics’ Digit is very sturdy and won’t break if it falls down. Digit will walk up stairs walk around obstacles and will even be able to place package over an obstacle such as a baby gate or dog fence at the front porch.
Tractica’s Glen Sanders concludes: “As developers create and test new delivery robots, the market — consumers and municipalities – will decide what works, and what is actually needed and worth the expense.”
He thinks that the novelty of robots will create much interest among early adopters but the long-term winners will be those companies that provide affordable solutions that improve lives while not creating new problems.