Ford's vision for parcel delivery is a robot that is folded in the back of a self-driving car

The first time you see a strange robot walking in your street, it might be a package. That is the future that Ford has in mind in a new jacket research project who investigates how robots and self-driving cars can work together to deliver groceries, fast food and more.

The robot in question is called Digit, and it stands just over five feet long. It has a pair of skeletal legs, two arms ending in shapeless studs and a sensor array where the head should be. It is the creation of startup Agility Robotics, which has been developing two-legged robots since 2015, when the company was spun out of research from Oregon State University.

In Ford's imagination, Digit would be bundled in the back of a self-driving car. When the car reaches its destination, the trunk pops open and Digit unfolds itself in a way that looks hostile to the droid army in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

The robot can then complete the final crucial step of delivery: actually pick up the package and leave it at your door. No people needed.


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"I'm out of my car and I'm fine."

To be clear: Ford does not currently have a set roadmap for creating a fully functioning robot delivery service. But it's not the only way to explore this space. Both Amazon and FedEx are proven (wheel) delivery robots. And Ford says it wants to launch an autonomous taxi and delivery service in 2021. Why not place robots in the back?

Ford & # 39; s CTO, Ken Washington, continues to write Medium: "A journey in transit could be doubled as a delivery service, whereby packages are dropped between carriers."

The car manufacturer makes convincing evidence of why robots would benefit from a link with self-driving cars. The vehicle offers two crucial sources: data and power. Digit can be charged in the rear of the car, leaving large 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 is a symbiotic relationship for robots.

Whether bipedal machines are actually ready to meet the challenges of parcel delivery is another question. Agility Robotics argues that legs are more suitable for this task than wheels because they are better able to navigate in an environment that is built for people.

"If you look at people from a design standpoint, what we are designed to do is extremely agile in an extremely messy environment," said Damion Shelton, CEO of Agility Robotics. The edge in 2017. Mobile robots have problems navigating stairs, curbs and other environmental hazards. Legged robots simply overcome these problems.

But legged robots are still relatively unstable. When they fall, they have trouble getting up. They cannot carry objects that are as heavy as their displaced brothers, and they are usually slower and less agile. How would a shaky bipedal bone react to an aggressive dog? Not good at all, is the likely answer. That is why Ford and Agility Robotics imagine that remote operators would see the robots doing the laps; they lead away from potential trouble spots.

At the moment, however, the project is still in its infancy. According to The robot report, the first time the full car and robot system was fully functional was only two weeks ago. Shelton told IEEE Spectrum that the first real tests will not start until "early 2020" and that the company has yet to complete the design of Digit, with a third and final version of the robot due to this summer. The company then only has the capacity to make two robots per month. That's just enough to test, not a full delivery service.

In other words: think of child's steps, not a big leap for a robot child. And don't expect the Ford robot mail carrier to knock on your door to soon.