Try to picture this: You order takeaway from your favorite pizza parlor in town, and after getting a notification you open your door to find a robot delivering your order. While robots delivering food firmly sounds like the summary of a sci-fi story the fact is that they are here and are only going to become more common with each passing day. However, these autonomous food delivery robots might not look the way you envision them to.
To understand this breakthrough in tech delivery we need to start by defining what a robot is in the first place. According to the most common definition, a robot is a programmable machine able to complete complex tasks automatically with or without external human control. In this sense factory machines, automated vehicles, and even the Roombas seen in modern households fall into the category of robots.
As such the modern grocery robot delivery models are largely self-driven vehicles of a small scale. Companies like DoorDash, Starship Technologies, and Amazon have started to roll out small robots that can be easily described as mobile canisters. Each robot holds food in the compartment on top of its body and carries it through wheels or tracks until it reaches its destination. This automated process not only reduces the need for staffing but also offers a brand-new way to look at delivery logistics and planning. And everything starts with these new miniaturized robots taking the streets.
At the most basic level, it’s fairly easy to grasp the idea behind a delivery robot; it simply rolls your way and you pick up your food. However, in the field of robotics tasks that seem simple to humans aren’t always the same for robots, and this isn’t an exception.
So how do exactly delivery bots work? Well to answer this question we need to understand the concept of localization and movement in machines, but in broad terms, you can think of delivery bots as small automated cars. Just like self-driven cars delivery, bots have a complete sensor array system to let them detect obstacles and understand their location compared to these. While the specifics will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer most of these robots use multiple cameras and ultrasonic sensors providing them with thorough visual data as well as a simple way to detect moving objects and distances.
That said sensors aren’t the sole ones responsible for delivery robots reaching their destination. Using specialized software these robots are designed to be able to map out their route based on pre-existing maps and experience and information they’ve gathered on the area. These robots largely approach movement like a human so they have to take into account traffic lights, tend to prefer the sidewalks, and if possible, will choose short and efficient routes. Of course, this brings potential complications due to all the data analysis involved, but if one of these sidewalk delivery robots ever finds itself lost or unable to advance their human operator can take direct control back from the office and assist the robot in completing its delivery.
As with most topics, there are a multitude of ways to classify delivery robots based on what criteria are relevant at the time. Delivery robots can be classified based on their expected task, their sensor systems, or even the company manufacturing them. However, in this case we will focus on a more practical aspect of delivery robots.
Locomotion has historically been a major challenge for robots, and the introduction of self-driving robots in more aspects of our daily life has brought new discussions and considerations as to how should a robot move and using which technologies. This is why today we’ll discuss delivery robots based on their means of motion, particularly the distinctions between the wheel and track systems that once again have become a major concern for robots thanks to the unique challenges these delivery drones face day after day.
Wheels are the traditional method of movement employed by most machines in our world and there are ample reasons for this. On paper, wheels provide an efficient method of transportation that consumes little energy, doesn’t require bipedal control, and can traverse most terrains. Wheels became the main method of locomotion for carriages and eventually cars for a reason, and their use in delivery robot development makes a lot of sense.
Like most small-scale robots in the market wheeled, delivery drones have more than the traditional 4-wheel set found in cars. Starship and Amazon in specific use 6 wheels total to move their robots, though there isn’t a set limit per se. This wheel array provides more surface contact, allows for the operation of 2 motors, and keeps turning simple and efficient, with the added advantage of providing some extra stability to the robot.
The main advantages of wheels in the manufacturing of delivery robots are their low cost, superior speed, maneuverability, and overall simplicity. Wheels are overall a very efficient method of movement and one that is largely cheap and simple by our modern standards. However, wheels do have one particular challenge when it comes to the world of sidewalk deliveries, and that’s their ability to go over obstacles.
For a robot to be able to overcome an obstacle and drive over it, its wheels need to be at least twice as tall as the object in question. On top of that, there’s always the possibility of balance being compromised when attempting to overcome an obstacle, and falling isn’t an enticing prospect for these machines.
Delivery robots are designed to operate on the sidewalks and in spaces designed around humans instead of cars, meaning that hard-to-approach obstacles are a real and constant concern for them, and this is a large enough concern to make sure wheels aren’t the only movement system employed in these robots.
Continuous tracks are the other major method of locomotion employed in robotics, and they generally are relied on when wheels alone aren’t able to traverse the environment safely. In many ways, the two systems are almost identical to explain because both of them do rely on wheels and motors to control acceleration and steering. That said in continuous track systems a continuous band of treads is present across the wheels providing improved traction and the ability to overcome more challenging obstacles on the road.
The main advantage continuous tracks offer over wheels is their improved power and stability. Tracks have considerably improved traction which allows them to operate under more challenging environments without fear of falling or slipping, and the way power is distributed also makes it easy for tracks to handle sharper inclinations as well.
On the flipside, continuous tracks tend to have one very clear disadvantage that is particularly problematic in the world of deliveries: Their speed. tracks are considerably slower than wheels even if they aren’t facing a major obstacle in the road, and this comes down to the way they work. Tracks involve more friction and are more complex overall meaning that two robots using similar motors for tracks and wheels will show major differences in performance. Last but not least tracks are harder to maintain and more expensive to repair, meaning that they aren’t ideal for all kinds of deliveries either.
Right now, delivery robots are mainly used to deliver individual packages on an order-by-order basis. Delivery robots are by definition small in scale and usually only have enough space to carry a single package which means that they are fully designed as a delivery solution for individual items. As such their key application areas as of now are mainly just for sales.
Delivery robots have mainly made an impact in the world of online shopping and food delivery due to the scale of the machines. Delivery robots are mainly designed to respond to a simple gap in shipment logistics. Trucks and other large vehicles are excellent for transporting multiple orders or crates to retailers, but if any small orders are also present in the truck the driver might need to leave their usual route and the client will have to wait for the other deliveries to be completed.
A delivery robot on the other hand can be used for individual orders providing a fast and fuel-efficient alternative that will improve delivery times and help logistics tremendously.
While the term robot has long been "futuristic" the fact is that some of us are already walking side by side with delivery robots, and these reliable machines will only become more common as time passes. Delivery robots are small autonomous driving machines that can carry packages and deliver them thanks to their advanced sensor and positioning technology, and while they might have some small locomotion challenges to face, they already work and are being used as we speak.
So next time you order your favorite pizza or a new product online don’t be surprised if it arrives on a small and friendly robot; delivery robots might not be in all neighborhoods yet, but that will be the case soon.