We’ve seen a number of last mile autonomous delivery solutions such as wheeled robots and drones, but both have practical limitations such as range and regulation. Wheeled robots – effectively wheeled boxes with intelligence, have been deployed in Milton Keynes – a city notable for it’s underpasses making crossing roads easily navigable but that won’t translate to most towns and cities and range is relatively low. Drones may be suitable for rural areas, but as a last mile autonomous delivery solutions go again range is limited and as with wheeled robots they have the unique limitation of only being able to delivery to one customer at a time before returning to base to pick up another package.
Now Ford are considering a more humanoid robot, Agility Robotics’ Digit, a robot with arms and legs, for last 50 feet delivery in conjunction with self driving vehicles. This would combine the benefits of normal road deliveries with the advantage of true last mile autonomous delivery that takes advantage of Digit for the final few feet from the vehicle to the doorstep.
This is early days with Ford Motor Company being the first customer, receiving the first two robots off the line. This cooperation continues an existing partnership between Agility and Ford to explore ways to help commercial vehicle customers, including autonomous vehicle businesses, make warehousing and delivery more efficient and affordable for their customers. The research will also focus on how Ford’s commercial vehicles and Digit “talk” to each other and their surroundings through advanced connectivity technologies. For example, Ford’s connected vehicles can continually update cloud-based maps that can be shared with Digit so it doesn’t have to recreate the same type of information.
Digit has been designed to walk upright without wasting energy, so it has no issue traversing the same types of environments most people do every day. Digit’s unique design also allows it to tightly fold itself up for easy storage in the back of a vehicle until it’s called into action. Once a vehicle arrives at its destination, Digit can be deployed to grab a package from the vehicle and carry out the final step in the delivery process. If it encounters an unexpected obstacle, it can send an image back to the vehicle to leverage additional computing power. The vehicle 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. Digit’s light weight also helps ensure it has a long run time, which is essential for delivery businesses that operate continuously through the business day.
“As online retailing continues growing, we believe robots will help our commercial customers build stronger businesses by making deliveries more efficient and affordable for all of us. We learned a lot this year working with Agility, now we can accelerate our exploratory work with commercial Digit robots.”
– Ken Washington, vice president, Ford Research and Advanced Engineering, and Chief Technology Officer