Ford and Agility Robotics Collaborate on Autonomous Vehicle-to-Robot Doorstep Deliveries

Ford and Agility Robotics Collaborate on Autonomous Vehicle-to-Robot Doorstep Deliveries

Author: Michael Cheng   

Using autonomous vehicles to deliver packages directly to the doorstep of customers, without help from humans, could be more seamless with bipedal robots. This is the solution Ford and Agility Robotics is currently exploring, via a recently announced partnership.

The collaboration will look into combining a driverless vehicle with a two-legged robot to drop off payloads up to 40 pounds at various residential locations. In the program, Ford will provide a fleet of modified autonomous vans. Agility Robotics will use this opportunity to unleash Digit, an upbeat bot equipped with sensors and cameras.

Autonomous Doorstep Deliveries

The deliveries start like a regular drop off, with the driverless vehicle approaching the home of the customer. In a completely autonomous scenario, there are no humans present inside the van to assist during the service. Instead, a modified vehicle brings along a bot to complete the final step of the delivery.

Upon reaching the location, the car pops open the back – revealing a folded robot. The bipedal machine, capable of standing upright and receiving location data, unfolds itself and walks up to the door to drop off the package. Afterwards, the bot folds back into the self-driving vehicle and the duo moves on to the next delivery.

"We're looking at the opportunity of autonomous vehicles through the lens of the consumer and we know from some early experimentation that there are challenges with the last 50 feet," said Ken Washington, CTO of Ford.

Albany-based Agility Robotics designed Digit for outdoor use. The robot can take on obstacles, such as stairs, inclines and uneven surfaces. Like humans, it relies on two legs (with rubber feet) for mobility. Compared to wheel-based designs, the bipedal solution allows access to homes without ramps and can regain balance when lightly bumped.

Ford, which is deeply invested in autonomous technology, has big plans for its collaboration with Agility Robotics. The automaker envisions driverless ride-hailing trips to double as a delivery service, with a compact robot folded in the trunk ready to take on the last part of the transaction.

Sharing Maps

The symbiotic-like relationship between Ford's autonomous delivery vans and Agility Robotics' friendly bots is reinforced through data sharing. Should Digit get lost on its way to the customer's doorstep or encounter complex obstacles, the robot can request mapping information from the self-driving vehicle.

In order to maintain Digit's lightweight structure and features, developers decided to keep its hardware components basic. Activities that require heavy computing are passed to the driverless van for processing.

"If you know you're riding around in the vehicle with a clear view of your entire surroundings, it's a lot easier to get up and move around," cited Damion Shelton, CEO of Agility Robotics.   

"That's really how we're viewing the primary purpose of this beta exchange; to help the robot be aware of its surroundings, so that you don't go through this sort of boot up process where the robot gets out of the car and is confused for the first 30 seconds it's turned on."

Michael Cheng
Michael Cheng
Michael Cheng is a legal editor and technical writer with publications for Blackberry ISHN Magazine Houzz and Payment Week. He specializes in technology business and digesting hard data. Outside of work Michael likes to train for marathons spend time with his daughter and explore new places.
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