Beware of bots bearing gifts?
Not if the bot is Roxo, the new FedEx SameDay Delivery Bot that made its debut outside City Hall on Aug. 6. Roxo, whose name means “purple” in Portuguese, rolled up Elm Street with a gift bag for Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, the first autonomous delivery made in any U.S. city under the delivery bot program.
“We have been working with DEKA over the last several months to create this new innovation,” said Rebecca Yeung, a vice president with FedEx Corp. “I’d like to thank the city of Manchester for such a warm welcome and also for making it possible for us to test Roxo here. This is going to be the first city where we test Roxo. It’s going to be very special because this is also the birthplace for Roxo.”
Aldermen approved a pilot agreement with FedEx Corp. and temporarily suspended an ordinance prohibiting driving on city sidewalks to pave the way for a SameDay Delivery Bot to begin rolling through Manchester this fall.
FedEx envisions using the box-shaped robots for deliveries in the not-too-distant future, and is ready to begin testing a 4-foot, 2-inch tall delivery robot in Memphis, Tenn., and Plano, Texas, as well as Manchester.
But Manchester is the first city to approve the terms of the pilot program.
The battery-powered bot travels at 10 mph, has a range of 8 miles and can navigate streets, sidewalks, curbs and potholes, dodge pedestrians and even take the steps up to a home’s front door.
FedEx developed its mobile robot with the help of DEKA Research & Development Corp., the company founded by Manchester inventor Dean Kamen. That connection helped the Queen City land the honor of being the location for a pilot program.
The platform for the delivery robot is DEKA’s iBot, a motorized wheelchair that is capable of climbing stairs and has more than 10 million miles of operation by users.
“This is the first ever genuine autonomous delivery of a small package in a pedestrian-friendly environment,” said Kamen. “I said there’s really only one place you could possibly do that. It may be a small city, but Manchester is the home of FIRST. Now after 30 years, Manchester is the home of the largest coalition of tech companies in the world.
“In the spirit of this little city showing leadership and supporting big ideas and companies, it’s exciting once again that we are in the middle of Manchester with another ‘first.’”
“Manchester has transitioned from an era of textiles to one of technology,” Mayor Craig said. “... This pilot is near and dear to my heart, because my Uncle Bob, who was a quadriplegic, actually participated in dean’s iBot pilot more than 20 years ago.”
Roxo’s features include advanced technology such as LiDAR (light detection and ranging) and multiple cameras, allowing the zero-emission, battery-powered bot to be aware of its surroundings. These features are coupled with machine-learning algorithms to detect and avoid obstacles, plot a safe path and allow the bot to follow road and safety rules, according to information provided by FedEx.
“When it left the Millyard this morning and came up here, we have technology and the ability to step in if we need to, but with all the training it’s been going through, it came up here on its own,” said Kamen. “And when people got in front of it, it stopped on its own. And when it got to intersections, it stopped and crossed on its own. This bot with all its smarts and its sensors and cloud connection, it came up here autonomously.”
Kamen said during the initial test runs, the trip from the Millyard to downtown took the bot 18 minutes.
“The second time was 17, then 16,” said Kamen. “Now it’s under 10 minutes. It will always be safe, and in a crowded pedestrian environment it will operate at safe, appropriate speeds.”
Last month aldermen voted to temporarily suspend Ordinance 70.20 (Driving Prohibited on Sidewalks and in Safety Zones) for the purpose of the pilot program. The intent of the suspension is for it to apply only to the FedEx bot, and remain in effect for all other vehicles. The City Solicitor’s office is drafting a permanent, specific exception to Ordinance 70.20 for autonomous delivery bots for aldermen to take up this fall.
Aldermen also approved language of an agreement between the city and FedEx Corp. detailing the parameters of the pilot program.
In part, the agreement states, “in the event the Bot is involved in a situation involving death, physical injuries or property damage (normal wear and tear excepted), regardless of fault, FedEx will notify police, and provide a report of its understanding of the facts surrounding the situation.
“If the Bot is to be determined at fault, Bot operations will cease until such time as any design or operational issues with the Bot are remedied by FedEx, and until such time as FedEx acknowledges that it will address any claims lodged by third parties, following which FedEx may resume operation,” the agreement states.
An early map of the pilot testing area includes downtown Manchester from Elm Street west to Commercial Street, from as far south as Lake Avenue on up to just north of Dow Street.
The FedEx robot will be able to carry packages as heavy as 100 pounds and calculate the optimal route to a delivery destination. The robot will signal to pedestrians, cyclists or motorists when it’s turning or stopping. If needed, it can talk to people it encounters via speakers operated by a FedEx employee monitoring the robots remotely.
The device weighs about 200 pounds and can run two hours on a single charge.
Once the robot arrives at a home or business, the person receiving the package would use a code sent to their mobile device to open the robot’s compartment. The automated vehicle would be able to pick up merchandise for return as well.
“Instead of using a vehicle to drive down the street, Roxo can deliver a pizza all the way to your doorstep,” said Yeung.
Kamen said anyone with ideas on stealing packages from Roxo, or vandalizing the bot, will find it’s not easy.
“When that bot closes, it’s not closing with a couple of latches,” said Kamen. “It closes and it internally locks. Can you break into it? You can break into a Brinks truck, but this is not a little toy. This is built on a base that the FDA approved to climb a 300-pound person up a flight of stairs.
He noted: “All those cameras are sending images up to you in real time and since FedEx has trucks all the U.S. If you can alert those people, and someone shows up in a truck in 30 seconds, kids or whoever is doing it may decide this is a bad thing to do.”