The first time you see a strange robot walking down your street, you could be delivering a package. That is the future that Ford projected into a new research project that explores how robots and cars that drive can work together to deliver groceries, fast food and more.
The robot in question is called Digit, and it has a height of more than five feet. It has a pair of skeletal legs, two arms that end in shapeless protuberances and a matrix of sensors where your head should be. It is the creation of the startup Agility Robotics, which has been developing biped robots since 2015, when the company came out of research at Oregon State University.
In Ford's imagination, Digit would be included in the back of a self-driven car. When the car reaches its destination, the trunk opens, and Digit unfolds in a disconcertingly similar manner to the army of droids in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace .
The robot can complete the last crucial step of the delivery: pick up the package and drop it on its door. No humans are required.
To be clear: Ford does not currently have a firm roadmap to create a fully functional robot delivery service. But he is not alone in the exploration of this space. Both Amazon and FedEx are testing delivery robots (on wheels). And Ford says it wants to launch an autonomous taxi and delivery service by 2021. Why not put robots in the back?
While Ford CTO, Ken Washington, writes in Middle : "A trip could double as a delivery service, leaving packages between passenger transport."
The automaker presents a convincing case of why robots would benefit from being paired with self-driving automobiles. The vehicle provides two crucial resources: data and power. Digit can be recharged in the back of the car, which means you can leave bulky batteries at home. And the sensors that provide the vehicle with its eyes and ears (cameras, LIDAR, etc.) can be used to create detailed maps that guide Digit to its destination and back.
It's a symbiotic relationship for robots.
If double-bodied machines are really ready to take on the challenges of package delivery it's another matter. Agility Robotics argues that legs are more suited to this task than wheels because they are better able to navigate through a built environment for humans.
"If you consider humans from the design point of view, what we were designed for is to be extremely agile in an extremely messy environment," said Agility Robotics CEO, Damion Shelton The Verge in 2017. Rolling robots have difficulties navigating stairs, curbs, and other environmental hazards. The robots with legs only overcome these problems.
But footed robots are still relatively unstable. If they fall, they have trouble getting up. They can not carry items as heavy as their siblings with wheels, and tend to be slower and less agile. How would a trembling biped robot react to an aggressive dog? Not quite right, is the likely answer. That's why Ford and Agility Robotics imagine that remote operators would supervise the robots doing the rounds; guiding them away from possible trouble spots.
At this time, however, the project is definitely in its early stages. According to The Robot Report the first time the entire car and robot system was fully functional was two weeks ago. Shelton told IEEE Spectrum that the first correct tests will not start until "early 2020", and the company must still complete the Digit design, with a third and final version of the robot for this summer. The company only has the capacity to make two robots per month. That's enough for testing, not a large-scale delivery service.
In other words: think of small steps, not a giant leap for robotkind. And do not expect to see the Ford robotic mailman knocking at your door .