IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Detroit Autonomous Delivery Pilot Will Begin With Food Waste

The Autonomous Robotic Pickup Platform, a project launching next week in Detroit’s Transportation Innovation Zone, will start by testing small sidewalk delivery bots to collect food waste for compost.

Three rectangular, red Ottonomy bots roll along a leaf-strewn city sidewalk.
Sidewalk delivery bots by Ottonomy will be used in a pilot project in Detroit, aimed first at transporting food waste to a composting facility.
Orange Sparkle Ball
Those sidewalk bots taking to the streets in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood may not be delivering pizzas, or a Starbucks coffee order — they could be carrying banana peels, onion skins or even used coffee grounds.

That’s because a pilot project in the historic district, the Autonomous Robotic Pickup Platform, will partner autonomous sidewalk bots with a composting startup and an urban farm to test new uses for self-operating vehicle technology. Food scraps are just the beginning, according to a representative of Orange Sparkle Ball (OSB), a Detroit-based technology consulting firm that will serve as the central manager and facilitator for the four-part pilot.

“We as a team have a lot of experience with autonomous delivery,” said Hannah Ranieri, an innovation strategist at OSB. “We’ve been doing autonomous delivery pilots with corporate partners for the past four years, and wanted [to] leverage a lot of that experience and that knowledge to start our own pickup platform, leveraging autonomous robots, and potentially drones in the future.”

The pilot’s first phase, which will involve a small section of Corktown, will launch Monday and conclude in November. OSB will function as the “strategy lead” for the project and navigate the permitting process and explore funding opportunities. It will also create a digital support tool, Ranieri said.

Projects like these are about more than collecting and composting food waste, or even deploying autonomous technology. They are largely exercises in organization, logistics, public policy and community engagement, to explore the uses of technology — and mobility — in the urban environment in new and novel ways.

This initiative received a grant from the the Michigan Mobility Funding Platform (MMFP), a mechanism to spur mobility innovation. It was made possible by the Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification.

The funding program, said Justine Johnson, an executive in that office and Michigan’s chief mobility officer, is designed to be “a resource for companies at a variety of different stages, whether they’re an early stage company, or whether they may be an industry incumbent.”

“It’s really an opportunity for companies to apply for funding to test and deploy new mobility innovations and technologies, either within a test site or real-world deployment,” she added.

In the Corktown project — which will be deployed in Detroit’s Transportation Innovation Zone — OSB will partner with Scrap Soils, a composting startup which collects food waste from homes and businesses, and Brother Nature, a small urban farm. The bots, provided by Ottonomy and Intermode, can operate on sidewalks or bike lanes and will be remotely and physically monitored. Refraction AI, a maker of autonomous technology, is also involved in the pilot.

“Before each of the pilots start, the area is mapped and all of the addresses are logged, noting where the bot will need to go,” Ranieri said. Later pilot phases will explore transporting other materials, such as different types of plastics, and a “form of specialty waste” like e-waste, she said.

OSB leaders said the Detroit pilot is a way to build knowledge around the logistics of autonomous pickup and delivery, as well as community engagement.

“We understand, at the community or ecosystem level, how to place these platforms and series of pilots so that they get the most traction,” said Meaghan Kennedy, OSB founder. “Our experience is this kind of holistic approach to how do you make change?”

Efforts like these, said Ashley Touchton, a partner at OSB, “can be the entry point for people to understand technology, and be able to begin to build a program around it.”

“The measurement, the structuring, the kind of orchestrating all the different parties, figuring out what the needs are in any different group that’s participating, and finding that middle ground is really Orange Sparkle Ball’s sweet spot,” she said.

Giving companies the freedom and the resources to explore initiatives like integrating autonomy into a neighborhood is part of the mission of the Michigan Mobility Funding Platform, Johnson said.

“We really see this as an opportunity for us to strengthen and grow the mobility ecosystem,” she said. “And for us, when we talk about mobility, this term is very broad in nature. So we’re talking about from moving people, moving goods, moving information over land, water and air.”
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.