Memphis, Tennessee, may be the place to be this summer when FedEx begins testing its own autonomous delivery robot. And while there are other delivery bot tests underway, the entrance by the pre-eminent delivery service in the U.S. into the self-driving space represents something of a milestone.
FedEx isn't talking about autonomous vans and trucks (yet). And the challenges facing even mainly on-the-sidewalk R2D2 robots are legion. Weather, uneven terrain, traffic, poor cellular network coverage, and humans behaving badly are just a few of the headaches facing programmers. However, FedEx's partners and its own delivery infrastructure implies that it may be uniquely positioned to overcome those obstacles.
The delivery bots, for example, are designed in partnership with Dean Kamen's DEKA Development & Research Corp. Kamen is best known for developing the Segway and iBot Personal Mobility Device, a wheelchair that can climb stairs. The latter demonstrates that DEKA's engineering skills will probably be able to help FedEx surmount some of the navigation issues for door-to-door delivery. The fully electric FedEx SameDay Bot will also be equipped with lidar, radar, and video cameras to assist in navigation.
FedEx plans to work with retailers including AutoZone, Lowe’s, Pizza Hut, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart to do, as the name implies, same-day door-to-door deliveries. Customers can open the bot using a smartphone app or have it opened by a remote operator. Those operators will also control the bots should the machines encounter situations they don't recognize.
How consumers will respond remains to be seen, but it could help those home-bound individuals who suffer from chronic illnesses or other restrictions that prevent them from getting outside. This week, many in the U.S. may also be hoping these bots can get through the snow in the future.