It’s just one of the many ways robots will be able to assist us in the future

City traffic is not the only place that knows congestion these days. With online shoppers growing in numbers year after year, delivery and postal services are at times way above their head. However, robots such as Ford’s Digit might be able to lend a helping hand and even remove the human element from the delivery process altogether.

Do we really need robots to handle our deliveries?

Ford's Digit Robot Works With Autonomous Cars To Deliver Your Package
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Ford believes there won’t be long before a robot will arrive at our front door, knock or ring the bell, say hello, and hand us that phone charger we’ve ordered online. Recent statistics seem to back up the Blue Oval’s predictions, as in 2018, the US Postal Service handled in excess of six billion packages, which accounts for double the number of packages it used to process on a yearly basis a decade ago.

So, to support and illustrate its prediction, Ford teamed up with Agility Robotics in finding a solution that would let people focus more on the things that matter and let autonomous cars and robots handle the logistics of the delivery process.

To be more exact, Ford wants robots to handle the last part of a delivery, i.e., taking the package from the car and to your doorstep.

Ford’s Digit bipedal robot can successfully replace the delivery guy

Ford's Digit Robot Works With Autonomous Cars To Deliver Your Package
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This is where Digit comes into play. Built by Oregon-based startup Agility Robotics, Digit is an evolution of the company’s Cassie bipedal robot unveiled in 2017, which only used ostrich-like legs attached to a robotic hip which incorporated its main control unit. Unlike Cassie, Digit has an upper body, two arms, more sensors, and better computing power. It is strong enough to lift and stack up to 40 pounds (18 kilos), can maintain its balance when pushed or bumped, climb stairs, and adjust its walking path to avoid obstacles of all sorts.

Ford says that Digit works best when paired to an autonomous cars for a variety of reasons. One of them is the robot’s ability to fold itself up in the back of a self-driving van. Once the car reaches a destination, Digit can be deployed to carry the package to the customer’s door.

Ford's Digit Robot Works With Autonomous Cars To Deliver Your Package
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Another feature allows Digit to connect to another robot nearby or to the self-driving vehicle it came with and access available data on the surrounding area.

This way, a map of the environment can be shared, so the robot knows exactly where to go to deliver the package, including which path to choose around potential obstacles - like a trash bin or a bicycle left unattended.

It works pretty much like this: Digit can already find its way through basic scenarios, says Ford, but it is also fitted with stereo cameras and a LiDAR. As soon as it detects an obstacle, the robot sends an image back to the car, which computes a solution. This solution is then sent back to the robot, allowing it to safely carry out its task.

What other humanoid robots are there?

Honda ASIMO

Well, we all remember Honda’s ASIMO, right? ASIMO comes from Advanced Step In Innovative Mobility and was introduced in 2000. Honda, however, worked to refine the recipe and as of 2011, the latest version of ASIMO became more autonomous and is capable of acting on its own judgement without human intervention.

Besides the friendly, human-like exterior, ASIMO’s abilities allow it to replicate part of the human senses - think sight, hearing, and touch - which in turn allow it to anticipate or adapt to a random situation. In that regard, ASIMO will not just stop if it detects something else crossing its path. Honda’s robot can also recognize the voices and faces of multiple people speaking at the same time, predict a person’s walking path and react to avoid a bump in, as well as run with speeds of up to 9 km/h (5.6 mph), run backwards, hop on two legs or on just one leg, and pour its own drink from a bottle to a cup.

Honda ASIMO specs

Honda ASIMO specs
Height 130 cm (4 feet 3 inches)
Weight 48 kilos (105.8 pounds)
Running speed 9 km/h (5.6 mph)
Actuators servomotors, drive unit
Degrees of freedom (DOF) 57

ASIMO, however, is the robotic equivalent of a human companion. It is not necessarily made for chores that would require physical power from a human being - such as lifting, for a change - but focuses more on the interaction aspect. Nevertheless, there is a robot that can pull off a wider range of tasks that require mobility, balance, and strength.

Boston Dynamics Atlas

Dubbed as "the world’s most dynamic humanoid," Atlas was built with mobile manipulation in mind. Boston Dynamics says Atlas can work both indoor and outdoor and recent updates brought to the robot-enhanced its balance abilities to the point that it can parkour and jump over difficult obstacles - which is a bit scary to take in the first time you see the video.

Needless to say, the utilitarian side of Atlas also comes from the fact that Boston Dynamics has been developing the robot under DARPA guidance. The first version of it was revealed back in 2013, but the company constantly worked to improve the robot which now uses the likes of LiDAR and stereo cameras as well as 28 degrees of freedom to navigate rough terrain, balance itself when hit.

More recent versions of Atlas could enter/exit a vehicle, open a door, and use a power tool. Oh, and it can even do a backflip. But the robot’s real task would be getting to and into places too dangerous for human beings - think remove debris after an earthquake or shut off/on valves, as DARPA was adamant that the robot will not be used for any sort of military applications, offensive or defensive.

Boston Dynamics Atlas specs

Boston Dynamics Atlas specs
Height 150 cm (4 feet 11 1/16 inches)
Weight 75 kilos (165 pounds)
Running speed n/a
Actuators hydraulic, servo valves
Degrees of freedom 28
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