Delivery robots put sidewalks in the spotlight

Amazon is rolling out a last mile robotic delivery pilot in Snohomish County, Washington ( Image: Amazon )

As more companies debut autonomous delivery robots – Amazon is the latest to announce a pilot – questions are mounting about how ready the technology is to navigate the surprisingly perilous world of the neighborhood sidewalk. Another major question – are companies ready to share data with local governments eager to improve infrastructure for pedestrians.

One of the lingering technological hurdles is size. That is, last-mile delivery robots appear to have a Goldilocks problem – they must be large enough to contain the necessary computing power but compact enough to traverse the sidewalk, said Anat Caspi, director of The Taskar Center for Accessible Technology (TCAT), an initiative housed by the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science at the University of Washington.  

A Tesla, Caspi noted, houses an artificial intelligence (AI) Nvidia Supercomputer (the Drive PX 2) – a mind-boggling powerful tool equivalent to 150 MacBook Pros.

“Delivery robots are not likely to have this kind of computer on-board and therefore need to be enabled with the same kind of sensing, perceiving and inference about the robot’s surroundings with a lot less computing power,” Caspi said.

In a typical last-mile sidewalk environment, she said, engineers “are having to tear everything down by 20 percent.”

Another hurdle is the uncertain state of the pedestrian infrastructure these robots must navigate.

Autonomous cars and trucks travel on roads and lanes that are standardized, Caspi said, so it’s relatively easy to create computer vision and other “inference” algorithms vehicles need to recognize and avoid hazards on the road.

Last-mile robots, by contrast, are navigating sidewalks with different widths, and the network of sidewalks is often disconnected and in disrepair. Moreover, there may be all manner of obstacles in the way: yard equipment, the errant kid’s toy.

The lack of uniformity makes it much harder to harness AI and machine learning for pedestrian navigation,  Caspi said.

On the up side – one delivery robot’s deficit is a city’s gold mine.  The flurry of delivery pilots means all of a sudden, some pretty powerful people are paying attention to sidewalks, an urban design feature that Caspi describes as “the fabric of our communities but also long-ignored and thought of as a lowly resource.”

Caspi’s own research focuses on on autonomous design for people with  disabilities, a space she says converges with delivery robot research.

“I would love to know if Amazon is going to share sidewalk data for the public social good,” said Caspi, referring to information gleaned from Amazon’s recently announced pilot in Snohomish County, Washington.

The e-commerce giant, she said, “is using public assets and commodifying them for commercial opportunity. It behooves municipalities to ask for that data.”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. But public agencies are taking note.

Washington State Representative Shelley Koba recently introduced a bill that would restrict the weight of delivery robots, limit them to sidewalks and crosswalks, and require both insurance and active monitoring by a human.

“Are they a motor vehicle? Are they a pedestrian? Not exactly,” said Koba. The bill, she said, “seeks to define that grey area where they are not a motor vehicle and are defined as a personal delivery device.”  

Koba said a section of the proposed legislation leaves open a “local option” allowing cities to create their own ordinances, such as requiring companies that undertake pilots to share data with public agencies.

Before delivery companies launch pilots, she noted, they typically do a full mapping of the sidewalks with a robot and a person walking alongside it.

“That’s a great amount of data that a city may not be aware of,” she said.

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Linda Baker, Staff Writer

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves staff reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes early-stage VC, freight-tech, mobility and West Coast emissions regulations.