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Really... more parcel-delivering robots

Blog

Really... more parcel-delivering robots

Ian Kerr

We all know the real shortcoming of using autonomous vehicles for parcel delivery: the vehicles don’t have a creepy robot emerging from the back to carry parcels to your door.

Ford, in partnership with Agility Robotics, looks to have solved that problem - albeit after having a bad acid trip.

Ok, ok, I’ll take it seriously. As we’ve discussed previously on the Postal Hub Podcast, autonomous vehicles can’t deliver a parcel to the door. Even ground-based vehicles or airborne drones can’t ring a doorbell.

Whenever an autonomous solution is used, the user has to meet the vehicle somehow.

With the Ford/Agility Robotics solution, the autonomous vehicle carries parcels to the neighbourhood, and a small autonomous robot then picks the parcel from the vehicle, carries it to the recipient’s door, then returns to the vehicle. (It is unclear if this robot is capable of ringing the doorbell. With those rubber hands there’s no way it could operate a door knocker.)

The recipient is notified of the parcel’s delivery via electronic messaging. So there’s no handover from the robot to the human, just a drop on the doorstep rather than the recipient having to meet the robot in the street.

Check out this hugely optimistic video of the robot in action (in perfect weather conditions, of course):

How does it work?

The robot (called Digit, in case you were wondering) can lift parcels weighing up to 18kg. It can traverse stairs and uneven terrain while whistling the theme from Hawaii Five-0.

When the self-driving vehicle brings Digit to the delivery address, the vehicle can wirelessly deliver all the environment information it needs, including the best pathway to the front door. This reduces the need for sensors on the robot itself, therefore saving on weight.

Ford and Agility reportedly plan to test gaining access to apartment buildings without the help of a doorman. (And without breaking in, assumedly.)

Would it work in real life?

In well-lit conditions, without pesky dogs or truculent neighbours, the robot would work for suburban deliveries… but it might not be a cost-effective alternative to a human.

However, if the much-reported driver shortage becomes acute, then the hourly cost of delivery drivers will continue to rise, making autonomous alternatives more viable.

Autonomous vehicles work well in closed environments such as mines or warehouses, but still have to prove themselves on the road. And small robots - even drones - have operational limitations.

This concept is a nice idea, but that robot needs to get a wriggle on and make that drop because those parcels won’t deliver themselves. Not yet, anyway.

And on the topic of things that deliver themselves, whatever happened to Ford’s self-driving pizza delivery cars that baked the pizza as they drove to the destination address?

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