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By Alyssa Newcomb
Package delivery may be going to the dogs.
In the race to automate the delivery of packages and food in urban areas, most companies have been focusing on wheeled robots. But the German automotive company Continental has another idea. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, it showed off a four-legged delivery robot designed to walk packages right to customers’ front doors.
In demonstrations at the Las Vegas Convention Center, the battery-powered ANYmal robot — made by Swiss robotics manufacturer ANYbotics — hopped out of Continental’s CUbE autonomous vehicle, stepped over a scooter in its path and climbed the front steps of a model front porch. Upon reaching the front door, the dogbot raised a paw to ring the doorbell and gently slid a package onto the doorstep. Before returning to the vehicle, the bot did a little dance to celebrate the successful delivery.
“We thought about other use cases and what are the most efficient ways to make deliveries,” said Steffen Hartmann, head of technical project management at Continental. “The problem is, the CUbE can deliver the last mile — but what about the last meters?”
ANYmal weighs 66 pounds and is capable of carrying up to 22 pounds. It isn’t as frisky as a real dog, but at a pace of about one meter per second, it can move from pavement to porch in a matter of seconds. The robot finds its way with help from its wide-angle cameras, sensor-studded feet and a radar-like technology known as LIDAR, which uses beams of laser light to map the surrounding area.
Hartmann said Continental simply “wanted to tease” the delivery system and that there were no immediate plans to bring it to market. If that changes, Continental will be competing with many other firms that have partnered with robotics companies or developed their own robots designed to deliver food and packages in cities and on college campuses.
“There are a lot of companies,” said Ayanna Howard, chair of the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “Not all of them are going to be successful. Some of it is hype, but some of them are promising.”
Among the companies developing delivery robots is Beijing-based Segway-Ninebot. Its new bot, dubbed Loomo, looks like a file cabinet on wheels and is designed to make deliveries inside office buildings or shopping malls. It’s expected to hit the market later this year, though the company has provided few details.
Another delivery robot in the works is Serve, a wheeled bot developed by the San Francisco-based delivery company Postmates. The company plans to deploy Serve first in Los Angeles, followed by more cities later this year.
Then there are PepsiCo’s “snackbots” now in use at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Developed by California-based Robby Technologies, the robots look a bit like large ice chests on wheels. Students can order a snack and meet the bot at one of dozens of designated spots on campus.
Domino’s has been experimenting with delivery bots in Australia and Germany since 2016. And in Scottsdale, Arizona, Kroger is testing automated grocery delivery with a small autonomous vehicle made by Nuro, a robotics maker in Mountain View, California. Unlike the other wheeled bots, Nuro’s R1 vehicle travels on public roads like a car. When it reaches its destination, its batwing doors open to allow customers to retrieve their groceries.
Boston Dynamics plans to begin selling a doglike robot called SpotMini later this year, company founder Mark Raibert said in 2018. The robot can open doors and carry packages, but the company hasn’t indicated it has plans to enter the delivery business.
For all the delivery robots out there, few consumers outside major cities are likely to encounter one anytime soon, Howard said, adding that the rise of delivery bots will be a “staged process” in which companies must obtain local approval, iron out any glitches in the delivery process and then educate customers.
But ultimately, she said, robots will transform the delivery industry the way companies like Uber and Lyft have transformed transportation.
“You’ll see it in highly populated urban areas where it’s quite difficult to navigate — Silicon Valley, Austin, Atlanta,” Howard said, adding that the companies behind the bots will be watching to see how humans like the automated deliveries.
“What they want to find out is, are people going to use it and is there a market for it?” she said.