The Last 50 Feet… Now Done by C3PO.

By Alex Batty, MHI Marketing Communications Coordinator | @mhi_alex

So, my boss has taken to sending me emails with a link and “This has an Alex blog written all over it.”

AND SHE WAS RIGHT! Good to know that your supervisor actually knows you 🙂

Warning: Unabashed geeking out upcoming. Gird thy loins.

Ford, like many other companies, is taking a look at the future of last mile delivery. But they want to use BIPEDAL ROBOTS!

At the risk of sounding like 1950’s sci-fi authors who said we’d have flying cars in the year 2000 (…right. We definitely missed that milestone) I’m going to paint you a picture.

A van pulls up to the curb. The back hatch clicks open and whirrs softly as it raises. Out pops C3PO… or Sonny… or… I had a hard time coming up with bipedal robots from films that aren’t homicidal. But you KNOW we gonna come up with some cute name for it. Ford/Agility Robotics calls theirs “Digit” *chorus of awwws*

But I digress. Back to painting.

A robot climbs out of the back of the van, walks up to your door, drops the package and climbs back into the van, off to deliver the next package.

Sounds like a movie, right? But Ford has created a concept video that both piques your interest and tugs at your heartstrings (as a marketer, I applaud the concept team).

While the robot’s gait is more nightmare fuel than human (The Verge makes the comparison to the droid army in Star Wars and now I have the Imperial March stuck in my head), it is autonomously completing that last 50 feet.

The concept is pretty simple. A package is prepared at a warehouse or distribution center, Digit picks it up and moves to an autonomous vehicle. The vehicle transports to the final destination and then Digit steps back in and delivers the final 50 feet.

The last mile. Fully autonomous. Ford doesn’t have a timeline for this concept project, but they do want to launch autonomous taxi/delivery by 2021, and Amazon and FedEx are both exploring robotic last 50 feet. So it’s really not as sci-fi as it sounds. The benefit Ford sees? “A ride-hailing trip could double as a delivery service, dropping off packages in between transporting passengers,” says Ford CTO Ken Washington in Medium.

Additionally, using the autonomous vehicle as a delivery system for the delivery system potentially solves some of robotic last 50 feet’s problems. The van severs as a charging dock for Digit, eliminating bulky batteries, and the sensors that would steer the van can also create a more data-rich environment for Digit to navigate in.

Digit is the creation of Agility Robotics, and they argue that for this application, legs are better than wheels? Why, because last 50 feet is typically set up for legs, not wheels. But legged robots are still notoriously rife with problems–they’re unstable, and once they fall, they can’t really get back up.

We echo The Verge’s caution. “Think baby steps, not one giant leap for robotkind. And don’t expect to see Ford’s robot mail carrier knocking on your door too soon.”

But the idea is cool. And it’s straight from material handling and logistics. Honestly, at this point, we’re waaaaay more innovative than Apple is. So we rock.