We have seen the future, and it looks a lot like ‘Elysium’
If you had any doubt that our Neil Blomkamp future is just around the corner, Ford has just released a video previewing the future of parcel delivery. And that future looks like an autonomous van that deploys a headless five-foot robot that gets out of the back and walks, Imperial AT-ST-style, with a parcel to your door, thus solving not only the last-mile part of a parcel’s journey, but also the last yard part.
Created by a startup called Agility Robotics, the parcel delivery robot is called Digit and it uses cameras and Lidar sensors to navigate physical environments.
“Built out of lightweight material and capable of lifting packages that weigh up to 40 pounds, Digit can go up and down stairs, walk naturally through uneven terrain, and even react to things like being bumped without losing its balance and falling over,” Ford says.
It’s difficult to say which part of this robot is more upsetting: the fact that its knees bend the other way, that it doesn’t really have a head but still has a neck of sorts, or that instead of five fingers on each hand it just has black plastic nubs.
The one non-upsetting element of its appearance is the fact that it’s painted teal. If it were simply silver metallic or black, it would be far more unfriendly-looking, and the engineers seem to have realized this as well.
“When a self-driving vehicle brings Digit to its final destination, the vehicle can wirelessly deliver all the information it needs, including the best pathway to the front door,” Ford adds. “Through this data exchange, Digit can work collaboratively with a vehicle to situate itself and begin making its delivery.”
We have to admit that so far we have not seen the need to replace our letter carrier or delivery person with a robot, even though it would be kind of cool on some level if it were shaped exactly like C-3PO or at least Chappie.
“Oh, here comes Threepio with the mail,” we’d say while sipping our coffee on a Saturday morning and flip him a quarter as a tip. (Threepio is saving up for an oil bath at the end of the month).
But from a purely economic perspective, what’s the win here: making hundreds of thousands of delivery and postal workers… have to do something else for a living, and making delivery cheaper as a business cost for billion-dollar companies?
“Whether we are working side-by-side with robots in our numerous factories around the world or living with them as they help push packages to our door, our primary goal is to ensure they are safe, reliable and capable of working alongside people in intelligent ways,” Ford says. “Through our collaboration with Agility, we are striving to determine the best way for our self-driving vehicles to cooperate with Digit and understand how this new delivery method can be taken advantage of in the future.
We know what you’re thinking: when will hundreds of thousands of these perform police tasks, like in “Elysium?”
It’s hard to tell when Detroit will get a real RoboCop (but… without a transplanted human brain). Boston Dynamics has been making a lot of progress over the past decade in creating very lifelike robots that can not only run, but can also bust out some basic parkour moves.
The single biggest deficiency of any robot of this type, aside from software limitations in interacting in environments while performing complex tasks, or an Avatar-style connection to a real person on the other end, is remarkably simple: electrical power. Batteries are just not good enough at the moment to allow robots of various designs to operate for more than an hour while walking or running, or doing anything else. It takes a lot of juice to propel a couple of hundred pounds worth of metal and plastic like a biped, which is why delivery droids in operation today (yes, really) are shaped like the Lunokhod or a scale model of armored personnel carrier.
So, as much as we’d love to have Threepio deliver stuff we bought on eBay at 2 AM and hear him make small talk in a British accent, the biggest limitation at the moment that will be more difficult to overcome than software programming is portable electrical power, which is why Digit may have to plug into the back of the van to recharge, and the van itself also has to recharge after a few hours of driving.
Speaking of Star Wars: why don’t they make these delivery droids look like R2-D2? They wouldn’t have to balance or expend energy while standing upright, simply rolling around on wheels, and use tripodal legs to go up and down the stairs? Artoo seemed to be able to pull off stairs in a few scenes, like getting into the escape pod in Episode IV.