FedEx’s new “SameDay” bot is just the latest of a long line of last-mile delivery robots that transport small packages from shops or local distribution centers directly to consumers. It might be similar to other delivery robots rolling around the streets, but a bot sporting the logo of one of the largest shipping companies on the planet suggests we’re witnessing a fundamental change in the way packages are delivered.
So far, the last-mile delivery robot business has been dominated by small or emerging startups. But within the last two months, larger companies have been publicly launching their own machines. In January, Amazon announced that its autonomous robot would begin testing in Seattle. And yesterday, FedEx–the delivery company and one of the planet’s most recognizable brands–announced its own prototype, which the company plans to begin testing this year.
Like Postmates’s recently unveiled delivery robot, which sports huge, Wall-E-esque eyes, FedEx SameDay bot is designed to seem friendly to humans in its own way. In fact, its design looks almost comical, with four chunky wheels and two small auxiliary wheels that look like little T-Rex hands.
Those hands aren’t there for decoration; the robot uses them to climb stairs and navigate any vertical obstacles it may encounter on its path. It’s a system that was developed with the help of Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway and the stair-climbing wheelchair. Kamen and his company, DEKA Development & Research Corp., are collaborating with FedEx on the SameDay robot’s design, which uses DEKA’s iBot base, originally developed for the company’s wheelchair.
The bot stores packages inside its hefty body, accessible via motorized doors, and LIDAR sensors in its “head” help it navigate the world with its electricity-powered traction system. Two screens, one on the back and one on the front, help it communicate with messages like “hello.” The back screen is used to indicate what the robot is about to do to anyone who is following it, with icons that indicate it’s about to turn right or stop to deliver a package.
FedEx says it wants to use the robot to deliver locally from shops like Lowe’s, Target, Pizza Hut, Walmart, and Walgreens. In the company’s demonstration video, it shows the SameDay bot delivering meds to a mom to give to her kid in bed. In other words, FedEx wants to position its robot as the equivalent to a neighborhood delivery boy, working with retail partners to set up a delivery system.
“On average, more than 60% of merchants’ customers live within three miles of a store location, demonstrating the opportunity for on-demand, hyperlocal delivery,” the company says in a press release.
The delivery company will start testing, pending city approval, this summer. It plans to put the bot to work as part of its SameDay delivery service, first between its headquarters’ buildings in Memphis. FedEx says it will refine the prototype, and then begin deployment as soon as the company’s engineers are satisfied with its performance. It’s unclear how long that will take, but FedEx announced that its first retail partners will include Pizza Hut, AutoZone, and others. The race to deliver your pizza with a robot is heating up.