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Ford’s robots could eventually deliver packages to your front door

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Imagine you’re waiting for a package to be delivered. As you track its every movement on your smartphone, you see a car pull into your driveway. But there’s no one behind the wheel. 

From the back, a light blue robot unfolds itself; carries your package to your front door; carefully walks back to the delivery van, avoiding the bikes your kids left on the lawn; neatly packs itself away, and heads off to its next job.

That’s the future Ford (F) envisions for its two newly purchased Digit robots. The first commercially available bipedal robot, Digit, designed and built by Agility Robotics, is a 100-pound titanium and plastic-clad peek into a not-too-distant future where self-driving cars are the norm.

“We’re still very early in the exploration phase, so it’s at this point still a research project,” Ford CTO Ken Washington told Yahoo Finance during an interview at CES 2020.

“But it’s an important research project that we believe could open up the opportunity for being a great provider of package delivery services in the autonomous future.”

A world’s first robot

The Digit on display at CES was, unfortunately, remote controlled rather than running autonomously due to the interference caused by the the enormous amount of people at the show. But in video demonstrations, the bi-pedal bot is shown picking up packages and navigating obstacles with ease.

On top of the robot is a Velodyne-sourced Lidar, or light detection and ranging, sensor that serves as Digit’s virtual eyes. It’s with this technology, which is also used on self-driving cars, that the robot is able to “see” its surroundings.

Agility Robotics is launching Digit, a robot with arms and legs to work with humans and in human spaces, for commercial sale; and, Ford Motor Company is the first customer, receiving the first two robots off the line. (Image: Ford)

According to Washington, Digit is designed to have its own level of autonomy while delivering packages. But deliveries can vary a good deal. And while some may include a quick walk up to a customer’s front door, others could require Digit to maneuver around parked cars, trees, gardens, and hedges.

In those instances, Washington said, Digit can get backup from the autonomous delivery vehicle’s sensors to help the robot better plot its course.

“Those are some of the experiments we are doing, and some of the work that we are working through with Agility, so we can deploy that kind of solution in the future where we have a package delivery autonomous service,” he explained.

Ford the delivery service?

While Digit is designed to assist in package delivery, Washington said Ford isn’t quite announcing its own foray into the logistics business.

“Lots of things are possible. We haven’t completely worked out all of the business models at this point, but we’ve been in the fleet business for a long time. And part of being in the fleet business includes exploring lots of different options, particularly in the autonomous future,” he said.

“And so by being a fleet vehicle leader in this autonomous future, we think it’s important to include a robotic solution for the last 50 feet problem.”

It’ll take some time before a friendly blue robot drops off packages at your door. But if Ford and Agility Robotics have their way, not too long.

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