What Amazon and FedEx Courier Robots Look First
Already in the near future, purchases from online stores will be delivered not by people in cars, but by swarms of robots traveling along sidewalks. Several promising projects are working in this direction at once. Starship Technologies from Estonia already uses small courier robots in hundreds of cities to deliver hot products from pizzerias and restaurants. Marble, a San Francisco-based startup, learned how to deliver falafel using a similar method. Kiwi robots bring food to UC Berkeley students in California, and sometimes catch fire .
But we are most interested in Amazon. It is from there that we deliver most of our purchases from America . And recently, Amazon announced the start of field trials of its own robot courier - Scout. A six-wheeled standalone droid will travel along sidewalks and deliver packages to Amazon Prime subscribers in major US cities. To begin with, the machine will begin work in a quiet Snohomish district in Washington. From Monday to Friday, during those hours of the day when there are fewer pedestrians on the streets.
When scouting, there will always be a companion person first, checking that the bot "safely and efficiently travels around people, pets and everything else in its path." Prime users using the robot will have to see even more significant reduction in delivery time. Amazon promises that most of the orders will be processed and arrive at the customer on the same day.
The company has been experimenting for more than ten years on ways to make delivery faster and cheaper. The so-called “last mile” has become a particularly big problem in recent years - delivery from warehouses directly to customers' houses. Here Amazon is now forced to rely on state. US mail, USPS. Only that one has the resources (and the desire) to go along the same routes, to tens of millions of homes daily. The problem is that some powerful people in America are convinced that such cooperation with Amazon for USPS is unprofitable in the end, and they want to ban the state. mail accept parcels from a private company. One of them is Trump, who last year almost declared Amazon a vendetta .
If state there will be no mail - the entire structure built by the company threatens to collapse. To insure yourself, you need to find your own options. Therefore, Amazon is so actively developing its delivery of drones, patenting towers in which they could "nest", and trying to organize people to work with their couriers on their way home or to work.
In 2018, the company launched the Delivery Service Partners program . Entrepreneurs registered in it can hire drivers and receive up to 40 trucks from Amazon to deliver parcels from warehouses to homes. The company wants to hire at least 1000 of these "partners", each of which will receive from $ 75 to $ 300 thousand a year. Not so bad for the owner of a small business, who is also given a good loan to start.
But even several thousand private entrepreneurs will not cope with the necessary volume of orders. Plus, what if one of them “falls off”? A few days without parcels for the inhabitants of the town? Amazon can't take that much risk.
Robots must eliminate these shortcomings. They are easily replaced, do not take up parking spaces, do not confuse parcels and do not require regular salary increases.
The argument against
Amazon came to the idea of terrestrial courier robots quite late, and its path in this area promises to be difficult. Such robots are like unmanned vehicles, with only a large number of parameters that you need to worry about. Highways and routes are more or less regulated, they have a structure and a set of rules to be followed. Sidewalks are more intuitive. There is no red traffic light or certain lanes that need to be moved. A robot traveling the streets or delivering goods from America, should be able to evaluate much more situations, and somehow navigate his surroundings. Consider that a door can open in front of him, monitor the animals and their leashes, check whether there is a puddle or broken tile in front of him, understand when he needs to cross the road, and how best to do it. Even in this century of unmanned vehicles, teaching AI to respond to all these situations will be extremely difficult.
Scout has so far used machine vision technology, more than a dozen cameras and a lidar to help avoid obstacles. So far, only six cars will be released on the road - to collect information and verify the operation of the systems.
Considering how many companies are moving towards courier robots, you might think that the future is definitely theirs. Especially when you have unlimited Amazon finance. But Brian Gerky, head of Open Robotics, which supports open source hardware and software in robotics, has some doubts:
It is not yet clear that this market exists. It may turn out that in such robots there is no economic sense. It is hard to imagine that they were better at moving along the sidewalks than the person for whom they were created. A non-standard staircase, an unexpected obstacle, a careless passerby - and your parcel will never be delivered.
The only thing the robot messenger has so far the advantage is that he never gets tired. The rest so far are solid minuses. He will not be able to open the gate or door, he will not be able to clarify the road. And, if the story of electric scooters showed something, people just won’t give up their sidewalk. Seeing a smug robot occupying their rightful place, some will want to show him who the boss is in the house. Many Scouts will be broken or stolen, this is guaranteed, there is nothing to be done about it. A system that could provide a small expensive device with complete security does not yet exist.
For many, interacting with Scout will be even nicer than working with a human courier. From an Amazon client’s point of view, there’s nothing complicated. You buy goods, you receive a PIN code on your smartphone (and email), after a few hours - you receive a signal, open the door, see a robot, enter the code, open the slot and pick up your parcel. So far, the drawback here is that if you are not at home, there is no one to enter the PIN code, and the parcel will not be delivered. But this is easily solved. It is enough to give a person the opportunity to choose the option to leave the package at the door. Then the delivery by the robot will not differ much from the delivery by people, plus the robot, with its cameras and GPS, has a less chance of making a door mistake.
In order not to annoy pedestrians, the Scout will move at an average walking speed. Perhaps even adjusting if the flow begins to move slower or faster. Bob Doyle, vice president of Robotic Industries, said that this will allow the machine to quickly become accepted among people, "join their environment." He also compliments the Scout design:
In my opinion, a good balance has been achieved. He looks friendly enough so that people don’t kick him, but not so friendly that the children run up and hug him and prevent him from doing his job.
The main thing is that new technology opens up a large field for potential profit. And the one who is the first to capture this market, as is usually the case with new technologies, will be in a big plus. Delivery of packages is still an extremely inefficient process, with many stages, at each of which an error or a hitch can occur. Full automation can solve a lot of problems, and save large companies a lot of money if everything works out.
Not only Amazon understands this. Just a couple of days after the announcement of the start of Skat's work, its courier bot was introduced to the competition by FedEx. Her device even managed to take part in the show with Jimmy Fallon, demonstrating his ability to ride on sand and gravel. This SameDay Bot is promised to ship packages for Pizza Hut, Walmart, Target, Lowe's, Walgreens and several other major retailers. Responsible for its development is the inventor Dean Kamen, author of the iBOT Segway and the all-terrain wheelchair. The FedEx and Cayman robot is expected to begin work in July, when councils of selected cities approve its use. After several months of testing, they are even going to give him the opportunity to deliver goods from the USA to other countries (for starters, Canada).
The problem with the perception of the bot among pedestrians, they decided in their own way. They have it a little larger, almost the size of a person, and with a screen in the center in which the robot will communicate its intentions. It is much more difficult to have a negative attitude towards the typewriter, which at the meeting tells you “Hello!”. And for the same children, he can write “Please don't touch me J”. The same screen at the back shows when the robot was about to turn or stop. Similar technology was previously tested by unmanned car developers. According to them, this reduces the number of accidents and overall misunderstandings between man and machine.
For Amazon and FedEx, the first months of testing robots should allow companies to decide whether to complement ordinary human couriers with them, or if the technology is still too raw. Few doubts that in the end, maybe in five to ten years, similar machines will be successfully used for delivery - perhaps in some specific niche. For customers, however, the difference is unlikely to be noticeable. Parcels will just appear in front of the door all the same. All this work worth hundreds of millions of dollars with the most advanced technology - so that customers do not feel the difference.