But, as of this writing, Tesla has yet to release software capable of handling the entire driving task. Amazon has yet to debut a drone or sidewalk robot delivery service for widespread delivery use.
Sidewalk robots, drones and self-driving cars are largely on the sidelines as the pandemic spurs Americans to stay home and order everything online. Amazon and other delivery dependent companies like Instacart have hired tens of thousands of workers to help pack and deliver groceries and packages instead.
Robotics supporters are quick to point out that it doesn’t have to be that way. With a robot on the job, every delivery is contactless. Social distancing comes naturally.
Every robot has its limits
“You’ve taken at least one gnarly part of the equation out,” said Sterling Anderson, co-founder of Aurora, which develops self-driving technology and has been invested in by Amazon. “You no longer have a human exposed at quite the rate. On the logistics side, this is a tremendous opportunity.”
Today drones, sidewalk robots and self-driving cars are already being tested for deliveries in at least six states and the District of Columbia. But they only account for a tiny fraction of goods delivered. Amazon, for example, which delivers 10 billion items a year worldwide, says it’s delivered thousands of packages during the pandemic in the last few months with its sidewalk robots in Snohomish County, Washington, and Irvine, California.
Amazon’s drone delivery service, branded as Prime Air, announced that it made a single delivery four years ago, however.
“We continue to make progress on Prime Air and look forward to the day when we are fulfilling customer orders in 30 minutes or less,”Amazon Robotics vice president Brad Porter said in a statement shared with CNN Business. “We’re working closely with the FAA and other regulators to make that a reality.”
Pony AI, a Fremont-California-based startup, is using its self-driving cars to deliver packages in Irvine, California. But it only makes about 200 deliveries a day, a similar load to what one human-driven UPS truck does on a busy day.
While the pandemic has created a huge opportunity for robots, the technology isn’t mature enough to seize the moment, experts say. Robots haven’t yet proven they’re safe enough to operate fully independently.
“You might as well get a 10-year-old car, put a person in it and do the same thing,” said Oliver Cameron, CEO of Voyage, which develops self-driving vehicles and offers a ride service in Florida.
New opportunities arrive
While the pandemic represents a missed opportunity to implement these technologies on a mass scale, the engineers working on this technology say they see a silver lining. They believe the pandemic will accelerate the development and social acceptance of robots, as the general public sees how useful they are.
“Moments like these are in many ways tragic. People die,” said Sebastian Thrun, who led Google’s self-driving car program for six years and is now the CEO of Kittyhawk, an electric flying vehicle company. “But they’re also moments that might lead to real innovation. We’ve always done well once we have a situation that causes great pain. We’ve always tried to learn from it.”
Earlier this week, in Sacramento, California, the Silicon Valley-based delivery startup Nuro lent one of its sleek autonomous pods to deliver medical supplies to a sports arena that has been converted into a makeshift medical facility. Medical workers won’t have to touch the vehicle, according to Nuro, as a remote human operator is watching for a “thumb up,” signal, indicating they should open the vehicle’s doors.
Tom Moss, COO of Skydio, which makes an autonomous drone, believes the pandemic will be a catalyzing event for robotics. Ohio’s highway department is using Skydio’s drones for bridge inspections, which helps keep its employees out of close proximity from one another.
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, eight self-driving robots that resemble bicycles from the startup Refraction are making 50 to 100 deliveries a day, according to CEO Matthew Johnson-Roberson. He said the startup is ordering 20 more robots and hopes to deploy them soon.
The startup has seen an increase in investor interest during the pandemic, Johnson-Roberson said.
“There’s never been a better time to have an autonomous vehicle on the streets than right now,” Johnson-Roberson said. “I don’t see a time when it’s going to be more useful to keep people from having contact with each other.”