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Indoor deliverbots on the rise


Here's a nice story about the Kiva warehouse delivery robot now being used by major retailers like The Gap. Factory floor robots have been around for some time, and the field even has a name "automated vehicle guidance systems" but these newer deliverbots kick it up a notch, picking up shelves and bringing them to a central area for distribution, finding their way on their own with sensors.

We're also seeing more hospital deliverbots, which -- very slowly -- take things around hospitals, roving the same corridors as the people. When a robot goes very slowly, people are willing to allow it to travel with them. The technological question is, how hard it is it to raise that speed and stay safe, and make people believe that they are safe.

Some applications care little about speed, and the slow robots already have a market there. We would not tolerate super slow robots on our streets, getting in the way of our cars, regularly.

One answer may be "extremely deferential" behaviour. Consider a deliverbot trundling down a low-volume street at 10 kph (6mph). It would be constantly checking for a vehicle coming up behind it, using radar, lasers and cameras. With LIDAR it would get about 90 meters of warning, with other sensors perhaps more. Say it detects a car coming behind it at 50 km/h (30mph). It has 8 seconds, during which it will will cover 22 meters. If it's a small robot -- and we might limit the robots to make them small -- odds are reasonable that it might find a place in which to duck, such as a driveway. These robots aren't parking, so they can move into driveway entrances, fire hydrant locations and many small non-parking spaces along the road.

Indeed, it need not find a place to pause on its own side of the road. If there is no immediate oncoming traffic, it could deek to the other side of the road for a hiding spot. Ideally it would be clever and not pick a driveway which has a moving car or even a car sensors reveal has the engine running.

Indeed, it's not unreasonable for the deliverbot to simply move into the oncoming lane if it is clear, to let the human vehicle pass. This is a bit disconcerting to our usual sense of how things work -- slow vehicles don't move to the left for us to pass them -- but there is no reason it could not be true. This is on urban streets where stopped vehicles, turning vehicles and even pedestrians are found in the middle of the street all the time, and drivers have plenty of time to stop for them. Nobody is going to hit such a vehicle, just get annoyed by it.

For the driver, they would see various slow deliverbots on the road ahead. But in all but unusual circumstances, by the time they got close to those robots, they would have pulled out of the lane, to pause in driveway entrances. The main risk is the driver might start to depend on this, and plow right into such a vehicle (at slow speeds) if there was no place for it to pull over. A deliverbot that doesn't immediately see a place to pull over would probably start blinking a very obvious flashing light on the back, increasing the warnings if the vehicle does not slow down. It might also speed up a little bit, if safe to do so, to reach a spot to pause.

Why is this interesting? I think we're much closer to building a vehicle that could go 10 kph on slow city streets, using LIDAR. If the vehicle is small and doesn't weigh a great deal, it simply won't be capable of doing much damage to people by hitting them. It could even be equipped with airbags on the outside should this ever become unavoidable. The main problems would be people hitting them, or being annoyed by them.

Once accepted, as safety technology improves, the speed can improve -- eventually to a level where they don't get in the way, other than in the sense that any other vehicle is in your way. There will always be those who want to go faster, and so the deference approach will always be useful.


Given today's headlines about losses at the U.S. Postal Service, the idea of deliverbots bringing the mail is worth considering. Standardized receptacles for incoming and outgoing mail at curbside would make the robotic task much simpler. Proposing changes in infrastructure in order to promote robotics is obviously a risky idea, but the way to get such a system going would be to give a discount to users who install such standard receptacles. Those who didn't want to install the standard receptacles could continue to get human-delivered mail, but they'd have to pay extra. Receptacle installation would become part of the building code, and businesses would switch to save money. The model of metered mail comes immediately to mind. No one has been forced to use a meter, but lots of meters are out there.

Problem is, recipients don't pay to receive mail. Senders want their mail delivered, and have no control over what the recipient has. They won't want to hear they can't mail you your bill because you have not installed a delivery slot.

My plan for deliverbots is that they would be given the code to open your garage door, and could go and leave packages inside the garage. Problem is, somebody could wait for a delivery robot to come and then rush into your garage. You could have them on video but that might be too late. Works better in suburban areas.

Interesting. I highly doubt you would ever design it to move into oncoming traffic though, since that could potentially make the deliver bot liable when something inevitably occured (even if highly unlikely).
I do think we'll have these someday, although I think that we're likely to see a lot of growth of robots that operate in controlled environments like warehouses before moving into dynamic, human environments like streets.
At least from my limited experience, programming the decision algorithms is tough enough when you don't have to consider other moving things outside your control (especially humans).

Realize that what I describe is not moving into oncoming traffic, but making use of the oncoming lane when it's empty.

For example, if a vehicle wants to get out of the way, and sees a clear holding spot (driveway) on the other side of the street, and no car coming, it could cross the oncoming lane to get to the spot. It would of course not do this if there was traffic coming. With LIDAR you can be very sure of these things.

We can also imagine these robots having a map of all the driveways and other waiting spots, and just not going down roads where there is not ample room to get out of the way of faster vehicles. This map could be static, but could also be dynamic. For example, if one vehicle (robot or human driven) goes down a street it can map the available diversion zones in real time, and these can be made available on the net. There are already cars that can do this now -- one car you can buy will tell you if you an fit in a parking spot, for example, if it has driven past it.

With these real time maps, deliverbots could plot courses to their destinations which assure they can always get out of the way of a faster vehicle within seconds. Of course, situations can change so there would be a few errors, where a human has to wait behind the slow robot. But in theory these could be very rare (and made very clear) so that the humans do not feel the robots are a nuisance. Robots may need to block traffic on the "last mile" as they get close to their target and there are no other routes, but that's OK.

This could bring us deliverbots and whistlecars sooner than you might think. Or even something simpler, "the self-parking, self-charging car" which is able to move (slowly) to charging stations when not in use, after the driver gets out of it. There could be quite a strong market for such a car.

This is a bit disconcerting to our usual sense of how things work — slow vehicles don’t move to the left for us to pass them — but there is no reason it could not be true.

This reminds me of growing up in the rural South - it wasn't unusual to come up behind a slow moving car or farm vehicle and have it move into the left lane so you could pass. This was particularly handy for large vehicles that were hard to see around. It pretty much never happens any more - too much traffic on those roads now.

Take a Segway ( it can move ~200 pounds at ~12 mph ) and add the sensors, control and a robot arm and you got Robo-Segway.

If you had a system that operated at night you could reduce the potential for conflict with people.
I would love to have a system that could drop off packages so that I could have them first thing in the morning (food for the day and other stuff).

But sure, night deliverbots make sense. However, I seek more eventually, such as what I call a whistlecar, car share that delivers itself to you, and you can drive one way. That requires driving in the day. Now if it has to go very slow, it's not as productive, but it can get in a lot of stuff like refueling, and parking. Probably can't do double duty at rush hour though unless you set up a system to form them in follow-the-leader trains where a human leads 30 cars back to the residential areas during rush hour so another 30 commuters (one taking along that driver) can re-use those cars.

PacBell had a "robot" delivering inter-office mail in their San
Ramon headquarters nearly twenty years ago. I agree that in
certain highly-controlled environments, deliver-bots may make
some sense. But public streets are not such a place.

To begin with, studies have shown that it's not necessarily high
vehicle speeds that result in accidents, but rather a large
difference between vehicle speeds. So to suggest that very low
speed deliver-bots should co-exist on the same streets as faster
moving traffic defies know safety conditions.

Furthermore, your proposal that deliver-bots might move left to
avoid traffic is also a non-starter. You act like you have no
driving experience whatsoever. How do you think the average (or
below average!) driver is going to react when they encounter a
deliver-bot making unpredictable -- from the POV of the driver --
movements, either left or right? What about the case where a
deliver-bot deferentially moves into the very driveway a motorist
wishes to enter? Drivers have enough to contend with as it is,
without adding vehicles that one has no hope of communicating
with in the event of conflicting motives.

Finally, deliver-bots suffer from all the same potential
drawbacks as the silly robo-plows idea: theft of cargo, fuel, or
the deliver-bot itself; vandalism; and of course, a myriad of
liability issues when the inevitable failures occur.

Brad is absolutely correct about the coming Deliver Bot for one simple reason. The cost to deliver a box of groceries drops by 90%. Once people know they can have the deliver bot drop by for a buck, then all hell breaks loose as local traffic planners are swamped with demands for the delivery service.

As far as safety, I would suggest that deliver bots drive the same way the UPS truck drives. I think we will see successful trials this year.

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