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Delivery options: drone or driverless vehicle with robot?

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Greg GazinIf the thought of getting your latest online purchase – particularly large, heavy ones – delivered by a drone makes you feel uneasy, how about having a robot deliver it after arriving in a self-driven car?

Autonomous delivery testing isn’t new. In 2017, Ford Motor Co. partnered with Domino’s in the U.S. to test self-driving pizza delivery. Ford has also partnered with Walmart, food-delivery company Postmates and other businesses in the Miami, Fla., area.

Now Ford is taking driverless delivery another step forward by adding a non-human assistant. The carmaker says it’s exploring a new autonomy frontier  – and rethinking how to make deliveries.

Ford teamed with Agility Robotics to design and build a two-legged delivery robot called Digit. The company says Digit is designed to “approximate” the look of a human. And while you would be hard pressed to compare Digit to Date, the android of Star Trek fame, you might be impressed with its human-like walk.

The driverless car and robot aren’t just a high-tech tag-team – they’re also designed to be efficient and elevate the customer experience.

One way is by maximizing cargo space, getting as many packages as possible into a vehicle. And Digit tightly folds into the back of the self-driving vehicle. At a delivery point, Digit is deployed: unfolding itself and delivering the package.

According to a Medium article by Dr. Ken Washington, vice-president of Ford research and advanced engineering, and chief technology officer, Digit is built from lightweight material and can lift up to 40 pounds (about 18 kg).

Digit can also go up and down stairs, navigate uneven terrain and keep its balance when bumped.

But Digit may need help now and then. So it’s equipped with camera and LIDAR (light detection and ranging) sensors, and enough sensory power to navigate through basic scenarios. If it encounters a roadblock, it can send a picture back to the vehicle. The vehicle, with all of its maps, data and history, searches for a solution. Failing that, a request can be sent to the cloud seeking help from other systems, essentially putting heads together to solve the problem.

No word, though, on how Digit would fair in sub-zero temperatures, northerly winds and icy sidewalks.

Drone delivery avoids on-ground traffic. A driverless vehicle and robot are a more down-to-earth option.

We can’t digitally download and transport and reconstruct items the way Star Trek’s fictional world does. But companies like Ford and Agility Robotics are developing technology that looks toward that future.

Troy Media columnist Greg Gazin, also known as the Gadget Guy and Gadget Greg, is a syndicated veteran tech columnist, communication, leadership and technology speaker, facilitator, blogger, podcaster and author. Reach him @gadgetgreg or at GadgetGuy.ca.

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