How do autonomous delivery robots work and are they safe?

One of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic has been to accelerate a move towards new technologies that can help us maintain social distancing rules and stay healthy and safe. For the first time, many more people have been exposed autonomous delivery robots as they choose to stay away from busy shops and receive a contactless delivery.

While these small, fridge sized, autonomous delivery robots were already in use prior to the pandemic – with companies like Amazon and FedEx beginning  trials with their robots (Amazon Scout and Roxo respectively) to deliver packages in 2019, demand for them is now increasing exponentially. During the pandemic, we’ve also seen companies like CVS and Walmart use the robots to deliver medication.


How do they work?

As with other delivery services, to use these six-wheeled robots you simply need to make a purchase of food or goods through an app with vendors based in your location. To deliver your items safely the robot uses many of the same features as an autonomous car. It has a number of cameras for 360-degree vision, several ultrasonic LIDAR sensors, GPS navigation, and much more. You can also track the delivery robot on its journey using this app, as well as using it to unlock the secure cargo compartment containing your purchases.

When working out how to get to your house, these delivery vehicles calculate a route based upon the shortest distance and satellite imagery, which can help them account for the number of curbs, crossings, and driveways on each route. The robots can also carry goods of up to 110 kilograms and travel at a maximum speed of 25 mph (although they usually travel around 4 mph depending on government legislation).

While these delivery robots are autonomous, they are not completely disconnected from their operators. This means, if a robot were to face a significant challenge, a human operator can take control and find a solution.


Are they safe?

One of the reasons these robots are becoming more widespread is that they are often deemed much safer than other autonomous vehicles. The LIDAR sensors (which stands for LIght Detection And Ranging) help these vehicles navigate around pedestrians on the sidewalk by bouncing a spinning laser beam off obstacles and detecting its reflections. The time it takes for the beam to return tells us how far each obstacle is from the robot – creating a 3D map of the dynamic environment.

Using this technology, the robots to scan both ways before crossing a street in order to avoid collisions with vehicles, just as a human would. In addition, their slow speed means they are unlikely to cause any harm should they accidently hit someone. Nonetheless, an incident in 2019 where one of these robots blocked a person in a wheelchair from crossing the road, proves that there are still safety issues that need to be resolved.

On the other hand, Starship Technologies, one company deploying these robots, says that its robots have also already covered tens of thousands of pavement miles in cities around the world, and have met millions of people, with zero accidents. They argue these robots can help with the urban problems of traffic jams, air pollution and road accidents – making them safer than human deliveries.

While there have been some instances where people have tried to steal these delivery robots, many companies have added sirens that go off if the robot is picked up, drawing attention to the robot thief. It is also worth noting that even if someone did steal the robot, its precise location can be tracked.

With demand for these robots increasing, investment into how to make sure they can operate without any human intervention is needed if they are going to be something that we see more of in years to come.

Would you like to receive a delivery from an autonomous robot? Let us know in the comments below. You can also read some of our other posts on autonomous vehicles here: