These days, we keep hearing automakers talk about all the partnerships they’re forming for autonomous cars, car sharing, large-scale electrification, and just general “mobility solutions.” A lot of it is bullshit meant to make the companies appear on the cutting edge, and some is legit research. I won’t speculate which camp this new Ford package-delivery robot research falls into, but I will say that I don’t mind the concept.
With Ford’s layoffs in the news, the company dropped a new press release describing how it has partnered with an Oregon-based startup called Agility Robotics to research “last mile delivery,” particularly how to get a package from a self-driving car onto someone’s front porch.
Ford’s Vice President of Research and Advanced Engineering, Dr. Ken Washington, wrote all about this partnership on Medium, starting by saying the Postal Service delivered twice the volume in 2018 that it did 10 years ago, and that this is an issue Ford plans to work with Agility to solve:
Together, we will work toward making sure self-driving vehicles are uniquely outfitted to accomplish something that’s proven surprisingly difficult to do: Carry out that final step of getting your delivery from the car to your door.
Developed by Agility Robotics, the little turquoise robot you see here is called Digit. It’s a lightweight bipedal machine that can apparently carry 40-pounds up and down stairs, detect and react to obstacles, and recover from bumps. It’s outfitted with LiDAR and cameras, and is set up to share data with a self-driving car. Per Ford:
When a self-driving vehicle brings Digit to its final destination, the vehicle can wirelessly deliver all the information it needs, including the best pathway to the front door. Through this data exchange, Digit can work collaboratively with a vehicle to situate itself and begin making its delivery.
If it encounters an unexpected obstacle, it can send an image back to the vehicle and have the vehicle configure a solution. The car could even send that information into the cloud and request help from other systems to enable Digit to navigate, providing multiple levels of assistance that help keep the robot light and nimble.
Is this just silly or will we actually see some type of result from “Digit”? We’ll have to wait and see. Do we really need a robot to deliver packages? I don’t know. Generally, I don’t think we need to robot-ify all aspects of our lives, but I think for a task as simple as dropping a box off at my front door, a robot’s not a terrible idea. Especially since my mail delivery person doesn’t say hi to me anymore, and also since I bet a robot is more resistant to aggressive German Shepherd bites.