The days of a living, breathing human walking your packages to the door may be coming to an end. Companies like Amazon and Google are working on rolling and flying drones to make deliveries, but Ford is investigating the drone delivery game, too. Its vision for the future of “last mile” delivery is a walking robot called Digit that folds up inside a self-driving car.
Ford is working with a company called Agility Robotics on the project, which it sees as a way to support the ever-increasing volume of deliveries. Ford’s Vice President of Research and Advanced Engineering points out that the US Postal Service delivered twice as many items in 2018 as it did a decade ago. While robots can help speed up many steps in the delivery process, navigating a neighborhood is surprisingly difficult. Digit is designed to cope with the unexpected and get that box to your door.
You’ve probably noticed that the demos of delivery drones and robots like Amazon Prime Air feature the robot dropping off a package in the middle of an open space. Ideally, you want it on your porch or next to a door. Even the rolling Amazon Scout robot will leave your box in a dumb place if there are steps between it and the door. Digit has the advantage of a vaguely humanoid design. It has arms and legs, so it can navigate a world built for humans. It can stroll right up those steps and set your package next to the door.
The demo video from Ford shows the robot using LIDAR and stereo cameras to detect obstacles in its path, allowing it to chart a new route. It actually chooses to walk across grass in the video, which seems risky, but the robot can allegedly recover from bumps and stumbles. Ford says Digit can carry packages up to 40 pounds with its graspers.
While Digit does the heavy lifting, the self-driving vehicle is an important part of the delivery process, too. In addition to autonomously navigating roads, the car acts as a link between Digit and the cloud. If Digit encounters a scenario it can’t understand, it beams data back to the car where more powerful computers can configure a solution. If the car isn’t capable, that data can go to the cloud where other systems (or people) can help. This keeps the robot small and lightweight with a long running time.
Will Digit ever deliver a package to you? Probably not — it’s just a concept based on initial research. However, something like Digit could be stomping up your front steps before long. Hopefully, it’ll be dropping off your latest online shopping purchase and not toting a plasma rifle.
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