The devil is in the details, as they say, and this became more apparent then ever after I moderated a panel on robot and drone delivery at GreenBiz’s Verge 19 conference in Oakland, CA this week. These devilish details, however, are important for everyone involved in the food space: retailers, delivery services, governments and even consumers to consider as autonomous robotic delivery moves from sci-fi to sidewalk.
On the panel were Jill North, Innovation and New Technology Program Manager for the City of San Jose; Natasha Blum Founder & Principal Director, Research & Strategy at Blumline; Matthew Lipka, Federal Public Policy Lead for Nuro; and Connor French, General Counsel at Zipline International.
The biggest takeaway from our lively discussion was just how complicated it is to deploy robots and drones, and how we are learning about these complications in real time. This was perfectly illustrated with news this week that the University of Pittsburgh is pausing its robot delivery with Starship because the robots may have been blocking people from wheelchairs from accessing the sidewalk. The real world has a way of bringing up complexities that may not have been foreseen while testing or were perhaps just ignored.
As a government employee, the real world is very much where North works. As an employee of the city of San Jose, she has to find a balance between pushing innovation ahead and not leaving people behind. Robots can’t be implemented just because they are cool, or because they get tech bros their burritos faster. She needs to answer questions like who has access to these new services? How will they interact with emergency services? How will they get electrical power? And because all this is so new, there aren’t a lot of answers right now.
Blum, however, is in the business of finding answers. Her Blumline research and design firm helped work on Postmates’ Serve robot by taking an ethnographic approach. Her team went into specific communities to learn what would be considered friendly or off-putting in a robot design. For example: should a robot sit higher and be more visible and sacrifice maneuverability or the other way around? One interesting outcome of Blum’s work could be that robots are customized for each community, featuring different colors or designs that make people more comfortable with the emerging automation in our lives.
Another technology that faces an uphill battle when it comes to getting people on board is drones. As French explained, drones are either associated with battlefield killing machines, tools of a surveillance state, or just the loud, buzzy nuisance that someone flies at the park. This puts the drone industry in a bit of a conundrum. It needs to expand into more benevolent purposes (e.g. medicine and food delivery to remote or hard to reach areas), but it can’t do so until more people are more comfortable with the idea of drones flying over their neighborhoods.
One company already in neighborhoods is Nuro, which has been using its pod-like, low-speed vehicles for grocery delivery in cities like Scottsdale, AZ, and Houston, TX. Lipka pointed out was that even if you work and engage with cities, communities and consumers, Mother Nature can still come along and throw you a curveball. A curveball like haboobs, which are intense dust storms that spring up in places like Arizona. These storms can do all kinds of damage to the sensors and cameras on a Nuro. Learning to interact with the idiosyncrasies associated with different environments is something robot and drone designers must pay attention to as well.
Finally, the big, yet-to-be-answered question from all of this innovation in the drone and robot delivery space is: Who pays for what? As North pointed out, more autonomous robot delivery means fewer people paying for parking, a major source of municipal income. Who pays for the upkeep of roads or new infrastructure like expanded sidewalks or special lanes on roads? The taxpayer? The private company?
This is all new territory, and again, it’s evolving in real-time right in front of us. But discussions like the one from this panel will help more people think about and develop strategies around solving the issues before they happen, rather than trying to fix them after the fact.