When it comes to autonomous delivery robots, size matters. Full-sized self-driving cars can travel on most major roads and go long distances, but may not work well in dense, traffic-congested cities. Little rover robots are nimble enough to zip along on sidewalks, but have a pretty limited range.
Refraction AI, an autonomous robotics startup that just came out of stealth today, is looking to split the difference with its REV-1 delivery vehicle. The REV-1 is a three-wheeled vehicle that stands 5 feet tall, 4.5 feet long and 30 inches wide. It weighs 100 pounds and has a top speed of 15 mph (Starship’s small rover bots have a top speed of 10 mph). The inside holds roughly 16 cubic feet, which translates to four to five grocery bags. There’s also an on-board touchscreen customers use to enter a code to unlock the REV-1 to retrieve their goods once they arrive.
The REV-1 has a stopping distance of just 5 feet, and to navigate around humans and other objects, Refraction has forsaken LIDAR used by other robots for a system combining 12 cameras with radar and ultrasound sensors. Refraction says that its LIDAR-less setup will allow it to travel better in inclement weather.
The REV-1’s in-between size and speed allow it to travel on both the roadway and in bike lanes, which, Refraction says, will open up new delivery route possibilities. And by not using LIDAR, Refraction can keep the cost of the REV-1 to $5,000 (though, LIDAR is getting cheaper).
Refraction is based in Ann Arbor, MI, and is the brainchild of University of Michigan professors Matthew Johnson-Roberson and Ram Vasudevan. The company is backed by eLab Ventures and Trucks Venture Capital and will start with restaurant food delivery before expanding into other last-mile logistics.
Refraction is certainly launching at the right time as delivery robots are hot right now. Starship and Kiwi‘s rovers are spreading across college campuses in the U.S. Udelv is piloting self-driving cargo vehicles with grocers like Farmstead and HEB. And Domino’s is testing Nuro’s pod-like autonomous low-speed vehicles for pizza delivery as well.
The REV-1’s form factor is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it might be easier for lawmakers to deal with as they make up rules around self-driving vehicles. The small(ish) size of the REV-1, the fact that it’s not on sidewalks and its small stopping distance could make it easier for regulators to allow it on the road (as opposed to full-sized, full-speed self-driving cars). Additionally, its ability to use bike lanes could make it faster than other robot options in urban and suburban environments.
It also seems like robot delivery won’t be a zero-sum game. Restaurants and grocery stores will probably need access to a number of different types of self-driving robots (and drones) depending on where they are delivering to: Rovers for around the block, REV-1’s for a little bit further out, and cars for across town.