Ford Looks to Robotics to Get Packages from Autonomous Delivery Vehicles to Customer Doors

Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn is teaming up with Agility Robotics of Albany, Ore., to develop a robot that will deliver packages from an automated vehicle to a customer’s door.
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Ford and Agility Robotics delivery robot
Ford and Agility Robotics are developing a robot that will deliver packages from autonomous vehicles to customers’ doors. // Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn is teaming up with Agility Robotics of Albany, Ore., to develop a robot that will deliver packages from an automated vehicle to a customer’s door.

Since self-driving vehicles have the potential to move people and goods simultaneously, making deliveries even more convenient and efficient. A passenger trip could double as a delivery service, dropping off packages in between transporting passengers.

“It’s not always convenient for people to leave their homes to retrieve deliveries or for businesses to run their own delivery services,” says Ken Washington, vice president, Ford Research and Advanced Engineering, and chief technology officer. “If we can free people up to focus less on the logistics of making deliveries, they can turn their time and effort to things that really need their attention.”

Ford is looking at using Agility Robotics’ two-legged robot named Digit, to get packages from a self-driving vehicle to the customer. Digit is a two-legged robot designed and built to not only approximate the look of a human, but to walk like one, too. Built out of lightweight material and capable of lifting packages that weigh up to 40 pounds, Digit can go up and down stairs, walk naturally through uneven terrain, and even react to things like being bumped without losing its balance and falling over.

“As humans, we take these abilities for granted, but they become extremely important when engineering a robot to navigate the nuances of various environments,” says Washington. “Gaining access to a customer’s door often requires walking through obstacles, including going up stairs and dealing with other challenges, which can be hard for robots with wheels to do since only about 1 percent of homes in the United States are wheelchair-accessible.”

Digit’s design also allows it to tightly fold itself up for easy storage in the back of a self-driving vehicle until it’s called into action. Once a self-driving car arrives at its destination, Digit can be deployed to grab a package from the vehicle and carry out the final step in the delivery process.

Digit also has the ability to tap the resources of another robot — one that’s equipped with advanced sensors and heavy computing hardware — for additional support and analytical skills when needed.

Outfitted with a LiDAR and a few stereo cameras, Digit itself has just enough sensory power to navigate through basic scenarios. If it encounters an unexpected obstacle, it can send an image back to the vehicle and have the vehicle configure a solution. The car could even send that information into the cloud and request help from other systems to enable Digit to navigate, providing multiple levels of assistance that help keep the robot light and nimble. Digit’s light weight also helps ensure it has a long run time, which is essential for a self-driving delivery business that will be operating most of the day.

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