When Refraction AI came out of stealth a couple weeks back, the company provided a fair amount of detail about its REV-1 autonomous delivery robot. The REV-1 has three wheels, can ride in a bike lane and ditched LIDAR in favor of on-board cameras for its navigation.
But we still had a few questions about Refraction AI’s robot and its approach to autonomous delivery, so I got on the phone with Refraction co-founder and CEO Matthew Johnson-Roberson this week to find out more.
One of the REV-1 launch’s biggest messages was that the robot was built to handle more inclement weather, but early coverage didn’t spell out exactly how. Right now a lot of autonomous vehicle testing happens in sunny places like Phoenix, Houston and the Bay Area. Clear skies and lots of light make it easier for robots to “see” things like lines on the road as they navigate.
Johnson-Roberson said that Refraction AI combines software and hardware to battle bad weather. First is the environmental scanning provided by a 12-camera setup as well as ultrasound and radar sensors on the REV-1. To make the robot less expensive, the REV-1 foregoes the LIDAR systems popular with other autonomous robots. And according to Johnson-Roberson, Refraction AI’s camera rig also allows the robot to track things not on the ground like buildings and cars to navigate even when road lines are not visible. The other way the REV-1 takes on bad weather is rather low tech. “We’re using fat bike tires a low PSI so they are squishy,” said Johnson-Roberson. “They can run in snow and rain.”
While the REV-1 is autonomous, there are still human tele-operators who can take over should the vehicle get stuck at, say, a complex intersection with a mix of cars and pedestrians.
The REV-1 is about the same size and speed as a bike, making its form factor kind of like a Goldilocks. It’s not big, like a full-sized car, and not small, like a rover robot. But that means it is free from the limitations of those other form factors. Full-sized self-driving cars may go faster and farther, but they also require a safety driver on-board, which pushes up the price of operation. Rover bots are cheaper, but they are slower and can’t hold as much food.
So what is the best environment for this in-between vehicle?
“Suburban LA is not a good idea,” said Johnson-Roberson, “We can go half a mile to 2.5 miles. That’s the sweet spot for what we’re trying to do.” So more dense urban areas are better for the REV-1. Refraction AI is eyeing Boston, Madison, WI and Austin, TX as potential rollout cities.
Right now, the company is working with two restaurants in the Ann Arbor, Mich. area. Johnson-Roberson didn’t provide many details about business models, but said that as the company expands, it will work directly with restaurants, providing them REV-1s and charging a per-delivery fee that “Is better than [what] Uber Eats is charging.”
Once a restaurant gets an order, it will use a tablet provided by Refraction to tell the REV-1 where to go. A code is texted to the customer who uses it to unlock the REV-1 when it arrives with the food.
While it’s working directly with restaurants right now, Johnson-Roberson said that his company is open to working with third-party delivery services.
Refraction AI is definitely a company to watch in the emerging delivery space. Self-driving delivery isn’t a zero sum game, but the REV-1’s unique form factor should make it appealing because of its combination of size and speed.