Last mile robotic delivery services are hitting the headlines fast and furious. During the recent Consumer Electronics Show JD.Com and Udelv announced major commercial deals, while the German company Continental wowed crowds with a demonstration of a spider-like creature delivering packages on a makeshift front porch.
Behind the scenes, an R&D enterprise in Oregon is taking a different approach. The company, Nova Dynamics, has been quietly testing its two-foot tall robot, DAX, in the tiny town of Philomath, population 4,760. Following a beta test last spring, the company is poised to release DAX, or rather, DAXes, on the town again in February.
Director Joseph Sullivan, a serial entrepreneur whose previous ventures include an internet provider and a firefighter alert service, ticked off a few goals for his autonomous project.
First, he wants DAX to be likable. “Our robot is trying to not be bothersome, not offensive,” explained Sullivan. “We want a cute robot that people like.”
In the same vein, Sullivan – who over the telephone comes across as more of an earnest techno-realist than a raging techno-optimist – wants to take a slow and steady approach to rolling out DAX. Amid mounting concerns about robots taking over the world, Sullivan worries delivery robots will face the same fate as e-scooters – in which “the basic idea is fantastic, but everyone kind of hates it.”
“I’m hoping that our efforts can prove a model,” he explained. “We want to show the world what a small connected town looks like.”
On the first count, likeability, DAX appears to have hit its target. Named after “Dex’s Diner” in the movie Star Wars, where robots serve as waiters, the Nova Dynamics robot is decidedly cute, not scary. (That DAX resembles R2D2 is not a coincidence.)
During the test run last spring, DAX, outfitted with a heater and cooler, delivered food from a Mexican restaurant, La Rockita, to local residents. News reports indicate it was well-received in the community. “Everyone wanted the robot to come to their door,” Sullivan said.
Philomath is located five miles from Corvallis, a college town known for its concentration of academic and for-profit engineering expertise.
Founded in 2015, Nova Dynamics is a hush-hush enterprise. Until a few weeks ago, the company didn’t have even have a website. Sullivan hired Erin Burt, Nova’s first marketing director, just six weeks ago.
Sullivan won’t disclose the number of company employees or its investors. And he is reluctant to issue grand proclamations.
Why the secrecy?
“We are very cautious,” Sullivan said. His biggest fear is that a big player like Starship will deploy in big cities and have a major misstep. “It could massively set us back.”
Sullivan said venture capitalists are eager to fund anything with robots, and that Nova Dynamics “would have no trouble getting very large amounts of money.” But the timetable would be too tight, he said.
Nova Dynamic’s beta test last year was successful in helping engineers identify problems, such as how to keep DAX running in the rain and how to make sure his hearing and vision are sharp.
The DAX that will be unveiled next month is a complete redesign. Sullivan says his goal is to deploy 30 DAXes in Philomath, and to serve a diverse set of businesses, like hardware stores.
“If everything goes well, DAX could be ready in a year, and if things go poorly, 10 years,” Sullivan said. “We have a lot of work to do. We’re trying not to get the industry to rush us.”