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Infrastructure Can Limit Delivery Robots as Much as Tech

Four pilot projects in cities across the country demonstrated some of the everyday challenges faced by deployments of small, self-operating delivery robots. The infrastructure the device must navigate can be a major limitation.

Kiwibot displays its autonomous robots at the TechCrunch TC Sessions: Robotics + AI. event held on the University of California — Berkeley campus in 2019.
Shutterstock/David Philogene
For all of their futuristic bling and pandemic promise, self-operating sidewalk delivery robots may not be ready for prime time just yet — but the reasons may surprise you.

Four coordinated pilot projects that deployed small delivery bots in cities around the country found the issues to be as basic as incomplete or damaged sidewalks to the operational limitations of the robots themselves.

“There are still a lot of barriers to widespread — even narrowspread — deployment,” said Nico Larco, a professor of architecture at the University of Oregon, and the director of the Urbanism Next Center, an urban design research institute. “This seems to be the case with most of these new technologies. When you get to on-the-ground deployments, things get a lot messier.”

Urbanism Next, in collaboration with Cityfi, the Knight Foundation and the cities of San Jose, Calif.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Miami-Dade County and Detroit formed the Knight Autonomous Vehicle (AV) Initiative to deploy and test Kiwibot delivery devices in each of the cities. The pilot projects ran for about three to six months in 2021. Initially, when the project was being imagined, organizers were planning for autonomous vehicle deployments. However, the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the needs around touchless deliveries, and a number of transportation tech observers have speculated on the potential scalability and use cases for autonomous technology in the on-demand delivery arena.

But what the four different pilot deployments seemed to underscore were the many considerations and details that need to be worked out before this technology is embraced both by the shopping public and the businesses who would be entrusting their products to a robot.

“One interesting thing that came out of this work was how important it is for public and private sectors to be working together. So much to learn about their own workings, abilities, pitfalls, and about how they work together. [There] needs to be more of this happening,” said Larco.

The public sector is largely charged with making the sort of policy that allows the devices to operate safely in the public right of way. But this also means having some role in setting the delivery zones, ensuring sidewalks are appropriate and undamaged, as well as organizing community events to familiarize the public with the devices and ease concerns.

In both San Jose and Pittsburgh the Kiwibots encountered obstacles or tipped over. In Detroit a robot had difficulty crossing a wide intersection because the signal changed too quickly. And in Pittsburgh heavy rain and snow limited use. These are some of the random, and yet very specific, obstacles that will need to be thought through before the devices can see a wider deployment, say researchers.

“I would be lying if I told you it was all cotton candy and ponies,” remarked Tony Geara, deputy chief of mobility innovation in Detroit. “There’s always a lot of challenges when you’re dealing with new technology.”

That said, the city learned a lot from the pilot, said Geara, and is interested in exploring more mobility technology.

One question the city wanted to explore was where should small, autonomous delivery robots be operating. The pilot helped to establish the finding that the sidewalk was the best setting.

“This seems to be the model that works the best. But in order to make them a success, we’ve made sure that they were safe on the sidewalk, with flags, with proper audible alerts … and be able to kind of prioritize the safety of the pedestrians that are walking on the sidewalk,” said Geara.

This finding comes as Uber Eats announced a recent partnership with Nuro to begin delivering food orders in Mountain View, Calif., and Houston, two cities Nuro has already adopted presence. Nuro’s autonomous delivery devices are nearly the size of a small car and travel on city streets.

In Detroit the project ran for three months in late 2021, and made 400 simulated deliveries with 12 actual orders to customers from the Corktown neighborhood. The Kiwibots covered some 450 miles in the city.

One of the other findings from the four pilot projects was how important community events proved to be. Residents and businesses wanted to see and touch the devices, understand how they work, and meet face-to-face with city and company officials. In the end, it was the actual human interpersonal interactions that made the robots less foreign.

“In the end, we are human, and personal experience is front and center to how we understand the world,” said Larco. “Hard to bypass that direct engagement.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.