In the future, humanoid robots will emerge from driverless vans to deliver parcels to your doorstep. That’s the vision Ford articulated today in a press release announcing its exploratory partnership with Agility Robotics, an Albany-based spinoff of Oregon State University’s Dynamic Robotics Laboratory that specializes in bipedal machines. The automaker says it’s embarking on a project to evaluate the suitability of Agility’s Digit — a two-legged robot with a lidar sensor, stereo cameras, and a maximum lifting capacity of 40 pounds — for package delivery.
Here’s how it might work: A driverless Ford car will arrive at a destination and open its trunk door, which conceals a folded Digit. The robot unfurls until it’s standing erect and identifies the correct package, which it grasps in its articulated arms and carries to a prespecified delivery zone. Digit exchanges positioning data with the vehicle all the while, and in the event it becomes confused by an obstacle, it’s able to hail for assistance via the driverless Ford’s cellular connection.
Ford isn’t the only firm to propose autonomous systems for the “last 50-foot” problem (i.e., transporting items from curb to door) — Boston Dynamics has for years advertised its quadrupedal Spot as a robust package delivery solution. But Ford asserts that bipedal machines have an advantage when it comes to navigating driveways and walkways, which can have steep inclines or contain cracks and steps.
The carmaker hasn’t invested capital in Agility, but the robotics startup expects that the $8.8 million in seed and series A funding it has raised to date (along with a forthcoming round) will give it enough runway to launch a second-generation Digit model this summer. In fact, it says work is already underway on a third and final generation that will debut this summer or early fall, and CEO Damion Shelton told TechCrunch that the company is on track to produce between 50 and 100 finalized units by 2021.
Ford has its fingers in a number of autonomous pies, including driverless passenger cars it’s developing in partnership with Pittsburgh-based Argo AI, an effort it has invested $1 billion in. (Ford executives previously said they expect the company to launch a self-driving shuttle fleet in 2021.) The carmaker intends to spend $4 billion developing autonomous vehicles in the next four years through a newly formed subsidiary, Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC (which includes the $1 billion earmarked for Argo AI), and it’s collaborating with partners such as Postmates, Dominos, and Walmart in cities like Miami, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and soon Austin.
But Ford faces competition in Continental, which in January demonstrated a parcel delivery concept that taps fleets of four-legged robots to ferry packages to warehouses, homes, and apartments. Another rival — Nuro — recently raised $940 million in venture capital and expanded its partnership with Kroger to Houston. Meanwhile, startup Robomart last year announced plans to test its driverless grocery store on wheels, and Udelv partnered with Farmstead in the Bay Area to transport perishables around busy city streets. That’s not to mention the handful of startups pursuing self-driving rovers, such as Marble, Starship Technologies, BoxBot, Dispatch, and Robby Technologies.
The McKinsey Institute forecasts that autonomous robots will make up 85% of last-mile deliveries by 2025 if the current trend holds.