Ford has developed a robot to help deliver parcels. Called Digit, the robot is two-legged machine which looks similar to Boston Dynamics' creations, and was built in collaboration with Agility Robotics.
The aim of Digit is to complete the last leg of automated delivery, with the robot working in conjunction with a self-driving vehicle – literally carrying parcels to your front door, fulfilling what Ford refers to as the "final steps of a self-driving delivery". It's a more advanced solution than Amazon's miniature delivery trucks, and more versatile than drone drops.
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Digit is capable of carrying up 18kg (40lb) and is kitted out with a series of stereo cameras to help it interpret its environment, and a LIDAR system to map terrain. The robot is packed with sensors to enable it to make sense of its surroundings, but there is also a two-way communication system between Digit and the driverless delivery vehicle.
Should Digit encounter a problem or an obstacle that it cannot get around by itself, it can send images back to the vehicle which will then attempt to come up with a solution.
By operating in this way, Digit is kept smaller and lighter than it would otherwise have been, and also more efficient. The heavy-duty – and heavy – computing equipment can be left in the delivery vehicle and only called upon when Digit's onboard hardware cannot deal with the environment it finds itself in.
How would a delivery work?
Digit is not entirely autonomous; it relies on a driverless delivery vehicle to deliver both itself and the parcels. Upon arriving at the delivery address, the robot unfolds from inside the vehicle, extending to near-human proportions. Standing upright on its two legs, Digit can grip parcel using arms appended by rubbery nodules and can walk right up to your front door and drop off your delivery on the doorstep.
Once the delivery has been made, Digit can walk back to the vehicle, fold itself back up in the boot, and head off to deliver the next parcel. The driverless vehicle does the hard work of navigating the streets of towns and cities, the robot does the heavy lifting and finishes off the job.
Being bipedal, Digit walks in a similar fashion to a human, and can even navigate stairs if necessary. Vice president and chief technology officer at Ford Research and Advanced Engineering, Dr Ken Washington, says that the robot can "walk naturally through uneven terrain, and even react to things like being bumped without losing its balance and falling over".
At the moment it is not clear just quite how long it could be before we see an army of Digit delivery robots out in the wild, but Ford clearly has big plans. Dr Washington even suggests linking Digit in with other systems for even greater efficiency. He says: "A ride-hailing trip could double as a delivery service, dropping off packages in between transporting passengers".
Work is already underway on the second-generation model, and this is expected to see the light of day this summer. A third and final designed is earmarked for the autumn, but there will be a lot of further testing and refinement required before you can expect your Amazon order to be delivered by Digit.