Here in 2019, delivery robots are very much a reality, with companies from Amazon to FedEx tripping over themselves and each other to be among the first wave of early adopters. Useful as these wheeled autonomous robots promise to be, they’re not exactly the image of a delivery robot that decades of science fiction writers have promised us.
Digit, the humanoid creation of Oregon-based startup Agility Robotics, is far more in line with those hopes and dreams. Boasting a bipedal design (meaning that it walks on two legs), Digit is capable of carrying boxes weighing up to 40 pounds, can push open doors, and generally manoeuvre environments like a real, flesh-and-blood delivery person.
“Only a very small percentage of residential properties in the U.S. are wheelchair accessible,” Dr. Damion Shelton, CEO and co-founder of Agility Robotics, told Digital Trends. “Assuming that this is a reasonable proxy for accessibility by wheeled ground vehicles in general, this means that the overwhelming majority of homes are not accessible to wheeled delivery robots. The one commonality that we know about all delivery locations today is that they are, almost without exception, accessible to pedestrians.”
Now the company has teamed up with Ford to test how two-legged robots could work together with self-driving cars to solve the delivery problem. In other words, it’s coming soon to a curb near you.
Another dog in the race
There are, of course, other options when it comes to robots. Four-legged robots, often modelled on the locomotion and appearance of large dogs, have made impressive breakthroughs. While robots such as Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot gain the most YouTube clicks for pulling off amazing, crowd-pleasing feats like backflips and parkour stunts, the fact that four-legged robots are already carrying out tasks such as inspections on oil rigs suggests that they a leg up (make that two) on their bipedal rivals.
“I would say that both will have their place,” Shelton continued. “For some very heavy payload tasks, four legs would probably be superior to two. But we aim to have our robots in human environments, working with humans and around humans, potentially in crowded spaces. An upright biped is going to better handle human interaction, going through a door and turning a corner to climb stairs, [as well as] moving its balance around to manipulate a package onto shelves that were built for human access.”
Technologically, there’s no doubt that Boston Dynamics’ robots remain the current gold standard. But Shelton thinks Agility Robotics has a few things going in its favor, too — particularly when it comes to taking a neat idea and making it a real world commodity. For one thing, he points out that they have already shipped products, dating back to the ostrich-style Cassie robot in August 2017.
“Lots of what we’ve learned has nothing to do with robots, but is vital for providing a high quality customer experience.”
“Since then, we’ve kept up a steady pace of deliveries, working to improve both our sales and manufacturing processes,” he continued. “There’s a lot to being a ‘product’ company that we’ve had to build capacity for: field support, spare parts stock levels, and so on. Lots of what we’ve learned has nothing to do with robots, but is vital for providing a high quality customer experience.”
The company has also focused on making Digit a functional, market-ready robot from day one. Sadly, this means it lacks some of the “exotic” (Shelton’s word) actuators needed to pull off an Atlas-style gymnastics display. However, it also means that it can be mass produced at a reasonable cost, and will require minimal maintenance.
After all, no-one wants to have to contact their local pizza parlor and explain that their delivery boy has broken down and is now blocking the front door!
Coming soon to a street near you
“[We always asked ourselves] are we building walking robots because they’re cool, or because they’re the right solution to a market-relevant problem?” Shelton said. “This was the single biggest reason we chose to pursue investment funding rather than just grants. Grants are great for developing new technology, but investor involvement helps keep us focused on meeting market demands.”
Despite the talk of being ready for the market, Digit isn’t available to purchase just yet. The version currently shown off is only version 1.0. The next revision is underway, and will make its grand debut later this year — along with an indication of pricing. The Ford collaboration, however, is extremely promising — since it gives Digit its first real-world experience.
“Through our collaboration with Agility, we are striving to determine the best way for our self-driving vehicles to cooperate with Digit and understand how this new delivery method can be taken advantage of in the future,” Dr. Ken Washington, VP of Ford Research and Advanced Engineering, and the company’s Chief Technology Officer, writes in a new blog post.
There’s no precise timeline the two companies have shared. But, hey, the idea that two-legged delivery robots are on their way is enough to keep us interested for the time being.
This feature has been updated to reflect the new partnership with Ford.
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