I have concerns about all the robots we’re about to unload on the environment. The idea of drones flying overhead, autonomous cars on the freeway, and delivery bots moving nonchalantly past me on the sidewalk is sort of creepy. And what about all the workers these machines are replacing? The future of employment doesn’t look good.
But then when I see a robot solving a problem, I have to admit it’s progress. Machines could allow us to live more convenient, seamless, and environmentally friendly lives. Take the Dispatch, a delivery bot developed by three MIT and UPenn alumni. It’s looking to automate “the last mile”–currently a big source of bottlenecks in cities and towns.
Currently, when delivery companies or retailers deliver, they drive trucks around to do it. Those trucks get stuck in traffic. Drivers waste time looking for parking, or have to park away from their delivery point, wasting more time. Trucks contribute a lot of tailpipe pollution. And so on.
So why have trucks driving around cities at all? Why doesn’t the truck stop someplace, where it’s less of a nuisance? From there, it can send out packages as people need them, saving time and money for the retailers and delivery companies, unclogging the roads for everyone else.
“We see our service being able to do that last mile to 200 feet. A courier could still come and do a large number of transfers, and then we would make multiple deliveries in parallel,” says Dispatch cofounder Sonia Jin.
Jin and fellow founders Stav Braun and Uriah Baalke teamed up while at another startup. After moving to California, Blake hit on the idea for the carrier bot. And, after development, the startup is now arranging its first pilot projects, to begin on private university campuses next year.
“Once we prove the trust and reliability around the service, we’ll start targeting municipalities, who are the ones who impose regulations on sidewalks and pedestrians spaces,” Jin says.
The bot has four compartments, each big enough for a shopping bag or parcel. After ordering something online, you can track the progress of the bot, and receive an alert when it’s close by, along with a PIN code. You enter that into the machine, it opens, and you have your candy.
But won’t someone want to kick the robot as it’s rolling along? (You know what drunk people are like).
“Everyone always asks us about people attacking the vehicle,” says Baalke. “The way I see it, I think people are going to be really curious around it. It’s natural children will want to divert it from its path and things like that. But over time, people will become used to it, and it will become mundane, something that’s just ‘oh, there’s the delivery robot.'”
We’ll see if we get used to these things on a personal level. But it’s easy to see the advantages of auto-delivery. Using trucks and drivers for every delivery no longer makes sense.