Next time you order something from Postmates, a robot might greet you at the doorstep. The San Francisco on-demand delivery firm today unveiled Serve, a four-wheeled delivery rover that’s capable of autonomously navigating sidewalks and city streets.
It’s the first commercial product from Postmates’ new research and development lab, Postmates X, and comes as Postmates reveals that it’s now averaging 4 million deliveries each month in 550 cities.
Serve’s colorful, LED-laden exterior belies its complex internals. The meter-high robot packs a suite of sensors including RGB cameras, sonar, time-of-flight sensors, GPS, and a lidar sensor supplied by Velodyne, plus a control panel with a “Help” button, a video chat display, and a touchscreen. Nvidia’s Xavier platform powers the little guy, and its electric motors carry up to 50 pounds for 25 miles on a charge — enough to make a dozen deliveries per day, by Postmates’ estimation.
It’s mostly driverless, but Serve’s progress is overseen remotely by a team of human pilots ready to take control in the event of a problem. And to ensure it operates within San Francisco’s newly enacted delivery robot rules, which limit companies to three robots each, capped at a speed of three miles per hour, Postmates said it’s soliciting a permit from the City.
At the start, in municipalities where Serve will be deployed in the next year (including Toronto and Los Angeles), it’ll fulfill direct deliveries to customers. (A top hatch conceals a cargo compartment that’s unlocked with the Postmates phone app or a passcode.) But it can also deliver food from restaurants to dispatch hubs in congested neighborhoods, Postmates says, from where delivery people can take packages the last mile.
With the rollout of Serve, Postmates enters a lucrative autonomous delivery market filled with well-funded startups like Marble, Starship Technologies, Boxbot, Dispatch, and Robby, to name a few. (Postmates previously partnered with Starship to pilot delivery robots.) The McKinsey Institute forecasts, in fact, that driverless rovers like Serve will make up 85 percent of last-mile deliveries by 2025.
And that’s not to mention companies like Nuro, which teamed up with grocery giant Kroger for self-driving grocery deliveries in the U.S. this summer; Robomart, which recently announced plans to test its driverless grocery store on wheels; Udelv, which partnered with Farmstead in the Bay Area to transport perishables to customers’ doorsteps; and Ford, which is collaborating with Postmates to deliver items from Walmart stores in Miami-Dade County.
But Ali Kashani, Postmates’ vice president of robotics, envisions Serve as more than just a delivery robot. It could one day deliver medication, patrol neighborhoods, and help to eliminate food waste, he told Wired in an interview.
“Somehow, as a society, we are OK with the fact that we are moving a two-pound burrito with a two-ton car,” Kashani said.