Robotic Ground Delivery Featured Pattern: P1113 September 2017

Author: David Strachan-Olson (Send us feedback.)

Some companies are developing autonomous robots and vehicles that make ground deliveries, but governments are having mixed reactions to their arrival.

Abstracts in this Pattern:

Ground delivery is an emerging application area of robotics technology. Numerous companies—including Starship Technologies (London, England) and Marble (San Francisco, California)—are developing small autonomous delivery robots that use the sidewalk to make deliveries. In a recent interview, Boston Dynamics (SoftBank Group Corp.; Tokyo, Japan) founder and CEO Marc Raibert disclosed that the company is experimenting with using its various robotic platforms in urban package delivery. At a recent conference, Dr. Raibert showed a video in which a four-leg doglike robot walks up to a front door to deliver a package it carries on its back. Other companies are applying autonomous-vehicle technology to create large self-driving delivery trucks. Recently, start-up Einride (Gothenburg, Sweden) unveiled its design for a fully electric autonomous cargo truck. Unlike other autonomous trucks, Einride's truck has no driver cab or windows and "looks essentially like an aerodynamic white box with wheels." Self-driving technology controls the vehicle during highway driving (though a remote operator can assume control if necessary). A remote operator takes control of the vehicle when it leaves the highway and must travel on smaller roads and city streets to reach its destination.

Just as companies are taking novel approaches in the development of robots that make ground deliveries, governments are taking novel approaches in the development of regulations that encourage, discourage, or even ban the use of such robots. For example, Virginia recently became the first US state to pass a law that allows ground robots to make deliveries. The law requires robots to weigh less than 50 pounds, move no faster than 10 miles per hour, and operate on sidewalks and in crosswalks only. The robots may operate beyond the line of sight of an operator, but an operator must monitor the robot remotely and take control if a problem occurs. In contrast, a city supervisor in San Francisco, California, recently introduced legislation to ban autonomous robots from sidewalks and public rights-of-way in San Francisco. The city supervisor was concerned about pedestrian safety, the risk of robots' replacing human employees, and the various privacy issues that could emerge because of the cameras robots use to navigate.