When the package delivery industry talks about autonomous vehicles, we often think of self-driving cars — and for good reason, since many experts believe will eliminate long-haul truck driving jobs in a matter of years. Drones are also making strides toward more widespread adoption. FedEx is now operating a revenue-generating drone delivery system in North Carolina, and competitors are likely on the way.
But several companies are also working on small autonomous mobile robots that can complete last-mile deliveries. These robots move like pedestrians, using crosswalks and sidewalks, to move parcels from warehouses or big-box stores to customers’ homes.
If these pilot projects prove successful, then these child-sized vehicles could have a giant-sized impact on last-mile delivery for the e-commerce market.
Amazon is developing an autonomous delivery vehicle that would be owned by customers and dispatched to go pick up packages whenever they were ready. Kroger has robots making grocery deliveries in Scottsdale, Arizona. Walmart is testing an autonomous van, more of a self-driving car than a little package pick-up robot, in the Phoenix suburbs.
And now, FedEx is testing an autonomous delivery robot. Online shopper, meet SameDay Bot. And SameDay Bot, meet online shopper.
What is SameDay Bot?
SameDay Bot is FedEx’s autonomous delivery robot.
The battery-powered device looks like a box sitting on top of four wheels, with two additional front wheels to help it climb and descend. A small camera-slash-sensor sits on top of the box.
The little robot, which Supply Chain Dive called “adorable,” can travel up to 10 miles per hour. It is designed for same-day, last-mile deliveries. A company executive who recently appeared on The Tonight Show said it could bring deliveries from the pharmacy to parents home with sick children or deliver takeout food orders. (SameDay Bot then delivered Jimmy Fallon a pizza.)
The technology that powers FedEx’s new autonomous mobile robot is known as LiDAR, or Light Detection And Ranging. The remote sensing method was developed by NASA and has a wide variety of technological applications.
Generally speaking, LiDAR sends light pulses in the form of lasers out to the environment around it. Surfaces in that environment reflect the beam of light. Then a sensor on the device, uses that reflected light to measure variable distances. The robot can combine information generated from LiDAR with GPS data and generate what NASA calls a “detail-rich group of elevation points.” That, effectively, gives the robot a three-dimensional look at the world around it, allowing it to know whether it needs to climb, descend, or travel around something.
LiDAR allows FedEx’s autonomous delivery robot to navigate unpaved terrain, such as gravel driveways, along with curbs and porch steps.
One video shows SameDay Bot’s front screen displaying a single word on a solid purple background: “Hello.” A screen on the back has an arrow showing passersby which direction the robot is traveling. The screen can also warn nearby people if the robot is about to stop. Autonomous vehicles use similar communication technology, although, of course, none have yet reached the market.
SameDay Bot will soon begin testing in Memphis, where Fedex is based. The Verge reported that early trials will use the robot to move packages from the company’s headquarters to nearby offices. If trials go well, FedEx plans to expand robot service to other companies.
Executives are currently in talks with Walgreens, AutoZone, Pizza Hut, Target, Lowe’s, and Walmart, according to The Verge. FedEx says that six in 10 of those companies’ customers live within three miles of a store, which is an ideal service radius for SameDay Bot.
What does this mean for the package delivery industry?
SameDay Bot, and other small last-mile delivery bots like it, face many of the same challenges that other autonomous vehicles do. They’re operating in a brand-new market where regulations are either nonexistent or so onerous that even testing is difficult.
However, governments and companies have gotten better at cooperating in recent years. FedEx’s drone program — the first ever to generate revenue from package delivery — was created in partnership with North Carolina officials and overseen by the U.S. Department of Transportation. And FedEx hopes to test SameDay Bot in Memphis with approval from local authorities, not in spite of them.
Further, AGVs may have an easier time with regulators than self-driving cars or drones. Drones use airspace, which is strictly controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration. And autonomous cars are huge, heavy, and fast-moving, which makes them dangerous to other people using the roads. With a top speed of 10 miles per hour and routes that mostly use pedestrian infrastructure, SameDay Bot and its competitors may be easier for regulators to understand and control. Plus it’s a zero-emission vehicle.
If the pilot is successful, FedEx could pave the way for other last-mile-focused delivery robots, including Amazon’s AGV.
Third-party package delivery companies are diversifying their fleets. For both shippers and customers, that’s likely a good thing — it means more delivery options at more price points with greater convenience. And although autonomous delivery robots haven’t gotten as much attention as drones or self-driving cars, it’s possible they’ll beat both to widespread adoption.