When it comes to machine-based deliveries, airborne drones get a lion’s share of attention and mindspace – thanks to Amazon’s and Google’s super-publicised attempts to conquer the space first. Unfortunately, equally adept (and in many ways, more immediately doable) land-based experiments have been left out of the limelight.
A San Francisco-based startup called Marble who’ve been conducting food deliveries via robot might be about to rectify that oversight.
Marble’s robots are washing machine sized robots, that roll about delivering food autonomously. The practice is simple – orders are received via an app, a robot then rolls over to correct restaurant, gets loaded up with the food, and then rolls on over to the customer’s location – all in minutes.
When the robot arrives, the recipient punches in a PIN they received upon the confirmation of the order, and the robot opens up its loading bay for food to be picked out of.
People would undoubtedly be patting the robot on the head, the way’d do to a cute kid doing the delivery run!
The technology of course, is still work in progress. Marble has already built a fleet that is they’re using to run local food deliveries in San Francisco’s Mission District, as their pilot program.
And this pilot program, like any other, needs to be monitored very closely. Hence a human minder walks alongside the robot. Even though the robots have been designed to function autonomously, Marble is observing performance closely and fine-tuning the tech and software to hit the road running (so to speak) when the time comes to expand operations.
In addition to the walk-along minder, each robot is also constantly watched by remote personnel, via a video camera. So, if anything goes wrong, the human minders are there to ensure the safety of the robot, as well as others around it.
Even though this approach eliminates any potential savings from eliminating human personnel at this point, it is not much different from how autonomous cars in testing have to be accompanied by a driver and an engineer even though they are fully capable of functioning entirely on their own.
On first glance, the robot is a little bulkier than one expects, and it’s not even the most visually appealing tech one has seen. But these are early days, and as the product evolves, it’s going to become much sexier!
When the technology progresses enough that a human minder is not needed to shadow the robot anymore, the robot would then be able to make faster deliveries, and would also be far more cost-efficient.
The question thus is of ‘when’ and not of ‘if’; robots doing deliveries are definitely coming to our lives, sooner than later.
And if you thought Marble was alone in staking out this technology – far from it. There are more, working on a technology of this kind, across different countries.
Most noticeably, there’s Starship Technologies, Marble’s leading competitor, also based out of San Francisco, who have had similar programs running since January 2017.
Looks aside, one would have to blind not to see that the proposition has tremendous potential -it’s not just food that can be delivered by platform of this kind; a fully empowered fleet of this kind could account for a lot of other ground-based cargo as well – couriers, mail, supplies and perhaps even pets!
Technology of this kind can then be instrumental in revolutionising ground based logistics.
It was Amazon that last did something of the kind, when they brought out their two-day and one-day delivery schemes, something that has become a sought-after standard in e-commerce the world over now. But one must be circumspect; Amazon had to work relentlessly to devise a system to ensure a delivery time that short could actually be maintained.
All these possibilities also feed into the debate between flying robots – a.k.a. drones – and ground-based robots. While flying robots will have the advantage of always being faster, they will also have more serious concerns – safety, noise, and environmental impact than ground-based ones. They might also end up being more expensive to operate, and thus not the best choice on a larger commercial scale.
On the other hand, people might ultimately find it more annoying to share their sidewalks with herds of ground-based robots than to have swarms of drones flying overhead, so you never know!
All said and done, I see most of this autonomy as inevitable, and we as the human race need to acknowledge that that day will soon dawn when we’d be spoilt rotten by it, and have nowhere to go because all we need will magically be arriving at our doorstep or falling gracefully out of the sky! Except, perhaps, Jeremy Clarkson – because hey, Jeremy is anything but graceful!
Also published on Medium.