- Delivery robots helped deliver food and medicine in Wuhan, China, during the coronavirus-related quarantine.
- In the United States, autonomous shuttles from the French company NAVYA have been repurposed as delivery robots to transport COVID-19 tests.
- Most of these delivery robots still have human controllers keeping track of them and driving them when needed.
While the Wuhan district in China was under quarantine, news surfaced of robots delivering food and, later, medical supplies. Meanwhile, in the United States, the French company NAVYA configured its autonomous passenger shuttles in Florida to transport COVID-19 tests to the Mayo Clinic from off-site test locations. As the weeks of stay-at-home orders and recommendations slip into months, the delivery robots that were seen as a joke, fad, or nuisance have in some instances found a way into the public consciousness as important tools to combat the spread of coronavirus. The question is, will their usefulness extend post-lockdown?
The novelty of the delivery robot has been in full swing for the past few years. As a lark, people may order something just to have it delivered to their office or home. But for the most part, we still rely on humans to drop off our food and groceries. One simple reason is that a human will come to the door. The robots need you to go outside to grab your food.
There’s also the concern that these cute machines with sandwiches stuffed inside are taking jobs away from people. On the whole, if they gain broad acceptance, it’s likely there will be fewer jobs. But these “autonomous” machines aren’t as autonomous as they seem.
Phantom Auto has made a business out of making sure that self-driving systems have a remote human controller ready to go in case things get complicated. The company’s teleoperation system is used to control cars, trucks, forklifts, and even delivery robots. It’s currently working with Postmates to make sure those delivery vehicles make it where they need to go.
“We provide software that enables delivery robot companies to remotely monitor and/or remotely assist and/or remotely drive their fleets of delivery robots from up to thousands of miles away,” Phantom Auto co-founder Elliot Katz told Car and Driver. The company is working with other partners on this, but won’t give details.
The system uses humans to monitor deliveries and in some cases drive the vehicles when they encounter a situation the robot can’t figure out. The remote drivers can handle a few robots at a time monitoring their status and jumping in when needed. Katz says it’s sort of like Zoom, but for physical work.
While some of us can work from home, delivery drivers can’t. But if they could control a group of delivery robots, they could do their jobs without putting themselves at risk. Right now, that seems like a good idea not just for drivers, but for companies as well as they try to navigate the current situation.
For Phantom Auto, that means increased interest in the company. “Supply-chain tech, which is what we are, generally speaking: everything is going to change post-coronavirus,” Katz said.
Refraction.ai co-founder and CEO and Matt Johnson-Roberson is figuring out ways to help restaurants that have had to change the way they do business almost overnight. “I’m a huge patron of restaurants,” he said, “and I would like all my favorite restaurants to still be around.”
One of the ways robotic delivery can help restaurants is by essentially halving the costs of delivery. Most of the main services (UberEats, GrubHub, Seamless) charge up to 30 percent. Refraction is charging 15 percent. But now it has gone beyond reducing friction and saving money for restaurants, Johnson-Robertson, seeing autonomous deliveries as a huge public health benefit, says his company is adjusting its machines to work within the new reality.
The company recently installed UV lights in its vehicles and moved to no-touch. When a robot arrives, the customer receives a text. They reply to that message, and the door of the vehicle opens without requiring the use of a keypad.
Refraction.ai is also investigating grocery delivery and delivering items to elder-care facilities. Grocery deliveries have seen a huge spike in demand as people opt to stay home instead of going out to buy supplies. The issue is that, for senior citizens and those with compromised immune systems, this is potentially the only way they can get food without putting themselves at increased risk. But many services, such as Amazon’s Whole Foods, have seen delivery windows booked up while workers are going on strike for better protection, sick pay, and better wages for essentially putting themselves at risk to drop off our food.
Like companies that are working with Phantom Auto, Refraction.ai’s robots have human monitors who can take control of the vehicle when needed. They’ve sent out modem boxes so its drivers can work from home. The company is also taking precautions to help it build robots to keep up with demand.
“We have the different pieces of the robot assembly process on different floors in the building so everybody has their own floor and they’re using their own bathroom,” Johnson-Robertson said.
In Florida, those autonomous NAVYA vehicles are driving along a set route without interaction with other traffic. They were built to move humans around. Pilot programs in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, shuttled people around at slow speeds as a glimpse into a world where autonomous vehicles move us around cities.
The reality seems to be moving to these types of vehicles offering safe ways to deliver packages while reducing the risk that comes with people going door to door with food, groceries, or other items. As more of these robot delivery machines venture out into the world to deliver food or medicine, communities will become accustomed to their presence.
We tend to mock or fear something that’s new. Cell phones and computers were initially owned only by the rich and nerds. Now we’re all on our phones and using the computer. We didn’t become rich nerds overnight; we just got used to seeing them everywhere until they eventually filled our pockets and sat on a desk in our home. Delivery robots might travel that same path, although at an accelerated pace due to the pandemic.
Right now they seem like a necessity. In the future, they might just be commonplace.