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Amazon delivery robots head south

Amid e-commerce surge, companies ramp up investment in sidewalk delivery robots

Amazon (AMZN) Scout, the e-giant’s electric autonomous delivery division, has expanded service to neighborhoods in Atlanta and Franklin, Tennessee, as a convergence of e-commerce, the pandemic and autonomous technology fuels interest in sidewalk delivery robots.

Scout, a six-wheeled robot, is already delivering packages in Snohomish County, Washington, and the Irvine-area of California. The expanded service, announced this week, will adhere to a similar schedule, delivering Monday through Friday during daylight hours, Amazon said in a blog post.

“Customers in both areas will order just as they normally would,” the company said, “and their Amazon packages will be delivered either by one of our trusted carrier partners or by Amazon Scout.”

The devices will autonomously follow their delivery routes and initially be accompanied by a human handler the company refers to as an “Amazon Scout ambassador.”

Adding Atlanta and Franklin to existing operations gives Amazon engineers the opportunity to test the robot in varied neighborhoods with different climates, the blog post stated. The expansion is also part of Amazon’s plan to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. 

E-commerce loves robots

Sidewalk robots have yet to attract the staggering amount of money pouring into the warehouse robotics industry. But Scout’s expanded service comes as Amazon and other retailers are ramping up investment in sidewalk robots to manage a surge in online shopping and demand for contactless delivery tied to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Since March, Starship Technologies, arguably the biggest player in the delivery robot arena, has added restaurant and/or grocery delivery services in Tempe, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and Irvine, California. The company, which secured $40 million in an investment round last summer, also expanded its service area in Milton Keynes, U.K. 

Smaller companies, such as Kiwibot, a sidewalk robot startup in Berkeley, California, are also expanding operations.

Regulatory hurdles

Autonomous trucks and cars face intense scrutiny over the safety of their operations. Considered cute and relatively harmless, sidewalk robots don’t attract a high degree of concern. But that may change as more of the devices hit crowded cities (like Atlanta), and potentially put them in conflict with people walking and exercising outdoors during the pandemic. 

Malfunctions and failures during delivery operations are a “major restraining factor” that could hamper the growth of the market, a recent market research analysis stated.

Last year, Starship Technologies was forced to temporarily pull its delivery robots from the University of Pittsburgh after a student in a wheelchair said one trapped her on a curb ramp. The robots apparently waited on the ramp to cross the street, blocking access for wheelchair users.

“The most costly portion of the delivery pipeline is the freight-to-door services, and that is why companies like Amazon are interested in mobilizing robots right away,” Anat Caspi, director of the Taskar Center for Accessible Technology at the University of Washington, told FreightWaves in an interview last year.

“But that is also why the human interaction is sort of an afterthought — or no thought,” Caspi said. “We aren’t very good at socializing robots.” 

Amazon did not immediately return FreightWaves’ request for comment.

But the Scout robots are designed to be “inherently safe,” according to the blog post, “and each delivery device can navigate around pets, pedestrians and other objects in its path.”

Related stories:

Prospective Amazon delivery robot would navigate air, land and sea

Robots are very good at social distancing

Amid a pandemic, Amazon pivots — and profits

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Linda Baker

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to

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