On-demand delivery company Postmates has unveiled an autonomous delivery robot called Serve that it’s planning to put to work in 2019.
The adorable wheel-based bot can carry items weighing up to 50 pounds and operates with a battery that gives it a range of 30 miles, which should be enough for around 12 deliveries a day, Postmates said.
The initial aim is to be able to make deliveries much more quickly by avoiding traffic by traveling on the sidewalk. Ultimately, it hopes to cut out the emissions of the cars and motorcycles that many of Postmates’ 350,000 couriers currently use.
Serve uses Velodyne LIDAR sensors and a Nvidia Xavier processor to navigate and avoid obstacles as it makes deliveries directly to people’s homes. It’s also able to make visual cues to help it weave between pedestrians on the sidewalk and vehicles as it crosses roads. A light ring on its top acts as a set of turn signals, while a pair of eyes on its front aims to give more subtle hints to passersby about which direction the robot might be heading in next. If things go wrong, a small touchscreen on the top of the bot can be used to make a video call for assistance, although the robots will also be supervised remotely.
WORKING ALONGSIDE HUMANS, NOT INSTEAD OF
Postmates is keen to point out that Serve won’t be putting any of its current delivery personnel out of a job. Instead, it should allow the company to make more deliveries, with the robot taking on a range of tasks that could include not only direct delivery to the customer, but also, say, item collection in busy areas where personnel might otherwise waste time looking for parking. “Serve could instantly pick up orders and transport them a few blocks to a Postmate away from occupied parking spaces and traffic,” the company suggested.
Obstacles to such autonomous delivery robots include trouble from thieves and vandals (remember HitchBot?), as well as jokers who might find it fun to confuse the robot by throwing a blanket over it. Most importantly, though, regulators have to be confident of their safety before they allow them onto the city streets, though a growing number of states have been willing to greenlight trials.
In the delivery world, robots have come to represent both a holy grail and an inevitability. Replace some or all of the human labor and you get faster drop-offs, more pick-ups per hour, and cheaper goods for everyone. Big companies, like Uber, Amazon, and Alibaba, have each invested heavily in developing such technologies, from delivery drones to autonomous bots; venture capitalist have poured millions into delivery robot start-ups like Marble, Boxbot, and Dispatch, all of which want their piece of the robo-delivery future. By some estimations, sidewalk bots like Serve will make up 85 percent of last-mile deliveries by 2025. Whichever company gains a foothold now will have a huge advantage in the future on-demand economy.
As for Serve, Postmates plans to put it to work first in Los Angeles, with more cities welcoming the delivery bot over the next 12 months.