Autonomous Delivery and the Last 100 Feet

You’ve no doubt by now seen Boston Dynamics latest “we’re living in the future” robotic creation, dubbed Handle. [Mike Szczys] recently covered the more-or-less-official company unveiling of Handle, the hybrid bipedal-wheeled robot that can handle smooth or rugged terrain and can even jump when it has to, all while remaining balanced and apparently handling up to 100 pounds of cargo with its arms. It’s absolutely sci-fi.

[Mike] closed his post with a quip about seeing “Handle wheeling down the street placing smile-adorned boxes on each stoop.” I’ve recently written about autonomous delivery, covering both autonomous freight as the ‘killer app’ for self-driving vehicles and the security issues posed by autonomous delivery. Now I want to look at where anthropoid robots might fit in the supply chain, and how likely it’ll be to see something like Handle taking over the last hundred feet from delivery truck to your door.

A Body for Business

Right up front, I’ve got to say that aside from the video below, I haven’t seen any other information on Handle. I don’t know what the intended market for this robot is, or if there even is a market — it could just be a proof-of-concept project. But based on the name, and the fact that Handle is roughly anthropomorphic in both size and shape, and that they bothered to show the robot carrying a 100-pound load, I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet the robot isn’t intended to weld or explore alien worlds or do any of the other things we’ve come to expect robots to do. To me, Handle looks like the perfect form-factor for a delivery bot; it reads very much like a person on a Segway.

The details of Handle’s form-factor are important to its presumed role in automated delivery, which I imagine as follows: a self-driving UPS truck drives up a suburban street, amber warning light flashing on the roof of its windowless body. Its GPS has guided it to the next stop on its assigned route: your house. A battered Handle (painted in UPS brown no doubt) undocks from the charging station in the rear of the truck, unfolds itself from the compact “transit posture” it assumes while the vehicle is in motion, and begins scanning for your package. It finds it on the upper shelf, grasps it gently but firmly, and signals the vehicle to unlock the door. Handle rolls down the short ramp and out the door onto the street. A quick scan with its cameras lets it plot a route to your front door, which it negotiates quickly thanks to its wheels. It avoids the tricycle on the walk, leaves the package on the stoop, scurries back to the truck, literally hops in, and settles in for the drive to the next stop.

Given what we’ve seen of Handle so far, this is all perfectly plausible. We know self-driving long-haul trucks are here, so autonomous local delivery is only a matter of time. Handle is about the right size and shape to fit into a reasonable vehicle, and we’ve seen how compact it can be when parked. It handles ramps with ease, and can at least go down stairs without any issues. We can only assume that going up stairs will be a future feature, but for now, it could certainly jump up stairs if it had to. Handle operates untethered for almost the entire video, seemingly completely autonomously, and has at least enough battery life to service several stops before needing a top-off in the back of the truck. And it has obstacle avoidance so Fido or Junior playing in the yard won’t get smooshed.

Obstacles and Hostilities

So if all the parts are there, what’s to stop Handle from being fielded? After all, Handle could be tested as a robotic “driver’s helper” right now using human-piloted trucks. There’s no reason the whole system needs to be automated end-to-end for the last 100 feet to be automated. So what might trip Handle up if it were to be pilot tested today?

Handle this, Handle.
Handle this, Handle.

As a thought experiment, let me use a delivery to my house as a possible problem. First off, the weather. We’ll assume Handle can be weatherized to some degree, so going out in the rain or snow won’t be a problem. But will Handle be able to negotiate snowy driveways and walks? We’ve had snow piled up here in north Idaho since early December, and some walks and driveways are only just getting back to thawed out. What’s more, the snow banks that grew all winter long have caused “driveway stenosis,” and with that narrowing things have gotten a bit cozy. My vehicles are snugged up tight together so that we often have to turn sideways to get down the driveway to fetch the mail. Handle would have a really hard time negotiating something like that, where a human driver could easily figure it out.

Obstacles like this are obviously not insurmountable. There’s no technical reason that a Handle would have to be constrained to human-oriented paths from the road to the door — it could just as easily plot a safe path over the curb and across the lawn. In the video, we saw Handle come barreling down a snowy embankment with considerable grace, even handling an icy patch with aplomb, so off-pavement travel wouldn’t be an issue. I imagine there’d have to be some sort of “right of way” agreement between the delivery company and the customer, though, lest azaleas get trampled and grumpy old men resort to yelling, “Get off my lawn, you robotic hippie!”

It might come to pass that homes and even neighborhoods start getting designed with robotic delivery in mind, keeping obstacles to a minimum. Access for robotic deliveries — or robotic firefighters, or robotic EMTs; I can easily see a pair of Handles moving a stretcher someday — might even be mandated by building codes eventually. Until then, robotic delivery assistants are going to have to deal with a lot of variability to get your package to the stoop. Kids, toys, pets, hoses, snow, mud, and grumpy old coots will all conspire to foul up Handle and whatever else comes along after it. And that just takes the suburban American use-case into account — think of the complexities of delivering to an inner city high-rise apartment.

But I’ll guarantee that delivery companies will be working on this, and soon. There’s just too much to be gained by taking humans out of the loop for that last hundred feet. It’ll be fascinating to see how they leverage something like Handle for this.

36 thoughts on “Autonomous Delivery and the Last 100 Feet

    1. Lookout, the Dairy industry have embedded agents everywhere. The black one left on the floor looks like it has a product label on like it was bought from a store.

    2. You can just buy the crates from various supply companies. If you look at the left-hand black crate as shown on the preview screen, you can see a tag from the manufacturer. Normally when a dairy or other company buys them either order them with their information stamped into the same location, or do so themselves upon purchase. Given that there is a manufacturer tag where the stamp would normally be, I’m going to guess they just bought them, not stole them.

  1. I look forward to the first test cases of people shooting down or otherwise attacking automated delivery drones, flying or terrestrial.

    – Person attacks drone to steal same-day stationary delivery
    – Person gets arrested because drone recorded whole incident and was being monitored live
    – Person get 10 years minimum for discharging a firearm in a residential area, plus more for destruction of property and theft
    – People give up the argument of “I’ll shoot any robot that gets close to my house” and realize it’s no different than robbing a UPS truck

    1. Shooting a “drone” that gets CLOSE to your house would be illegal. Shooting a drone that actually crosses your property line, at least in many US states, would be legally justified as defense of your Real or Personal property (some states are more strict about what constitutes “defense”, so its not in any way universal). Of course that doesn’t make it a good idea. You would be better off to sue the offending company for trespassing. This gets even more complicated with aerial drones, as aircraft have special rights. However, strictly from a legal perspective, you could shoot a trespassing robot, theoretically with less legal repercussions than an actual human trespasser. Of course stealing any package from said robot would be illegal.

      As far as aerial drones are concerned, shooting one down would be a bad idea for several reasons, both legally and practically. That being said, if you were to sue a delivery company for flying drones over your house at low altitude, there is some legal precedence. https://www.oyez.org/cases/1940-1955/328us256 All that would be required is for the presence of an aircraft to interfere with your enjoyment of your property. Before someone says it: commercial flights are exempt from this because they operate at an altitude above that of what the Civil Aviation Act of 1982 implies is the approximate boundary of personal airspace above ones property (~500-1000ft).

      1. >Shooting a drone that actually crosses your property line, at least in many US states, would be legally justified as defense of your Real or Personal property (some states are more strict about what constitutes “defense”, so its not in any way universal).

        In which states are you allowed to shoot down aircraft over your home, or shoot at delivery trucks that park in your driveway? How can you claim defense when the “threat” was paid by you to deliver to your home? What crazy state do you live in?

        >However, strictly from a legal perspective, you could shoot a trespassing robot, theoretically with less legal repercussions than an actual human trespasser. Of course stealing any package from said robot would be illegal.

        It’d be the same as shooting at a delivery truck parked in your driveway. Just firing your gun is a 10 year minimum. And then considering you INVITED that truck to deliver to your home, there’s really no defense aspect. At all.

        >All that would be required is for the presence of an aircraft to interfere with your enjoyment of your property.

        Sounds like a thin precedent to me. Where I live there’s a LOT of people very unhappy about airplanes landing and taking off from the airport, and the noise is a bit of irritating.

        >commercial flights are exempt from this because they operate at an altitude above that of what the Civil Aviation Act of 1982 implies is the approximate boundary of personal airspace above ones property (~500-1000ft).

        And delivery drones aren’t covered by this?

        1. >In which states are you allowed to shoot down aircraft over your home, or shoot at delivery trucks that park in your driveway? How can you claim defense when the “threat” was paid by you to deliver to your home? What crazy state do you live in?
          >It’d be the same as shooting at a delivery truck parked in your driveway. Just firing your gun is a 10 year minimum. And then considering you INVITED that truck to deliver to your home, there’s really no defense aspect. At all.

          This article was written primarily about GROUND based “drones”. Perhaps you would prefer I call it an “autonomous overland delivery vehicle”… You also clearly missed my point – you would be legally justified (in some states) to shoot trespassers. A ground based vehicle which rolls onto your property uninvited is trespassing. I didn’t think I would have to spell out that ordering something which would be delivered by one is a form of invitation onto the property, meaning it would not be trespassing unless you revoked it’s permission to enter the property, just like any other delivery person. This discussion was about a trespassing robot, not an invited one.

          The entire reason I left “This gets even more complicated with aerial drones, as aircraft have special rights.” in the first section is because I was NOT talking about them yet. I saved that for the 2nd half of my post.

          >Sounds like a thin precedent to me. Where I live there’s a LOT of people very unhappy about airplanes landing and taking off from the airport, and the noise is a bit of irritating.

          I answered this…

          >And delivery drones aren’t covered by this?

          Also, no. Delivery drones would not be covered by the CAA/1982 because their primary operation would be delivering things to your house which, unless you live in a very tall building, is less than a thousand feet tall.

          I can’t stress enough how bad of an idea it would be to shoot either a ground or aerial drone. A lawsuit would be much easier. That does not, however, mean that you couldn’t.

          Destroying a delivery drone of any kind would of course be more justifiable if it was actually damaging your property. Ex – Drone stuck in an error loop keeps running into your fence.

    2. Busting up a drone is nothing more than vandalism and by the time the police are notified and respond, the assailants will be long gone. In fact if these robots contain some very expensive components, they will become natural prey for robbers who will resell the scrap on some high tech black market.

      In regards to using a firearm, why should anyone? It’s much more efficient to walk up to such a machine and give a good whack with a sledge hammer.

      In case you haven’t noticed it’s become quite popular to steal packages left by UPS and Fedex on peoples doorstep. And cameras don’t stop any of it. See the robbers are getting savvy and disguising themselves so video recording is useless.

        1. Just local news reports almost on a daily basis.

          Fact is cameras no longer seen a deterrent since they are so easy to circumvent – wear a hoodie and gloves and it’s useless.

          Even brake and enter thieves are doing this. Makes it almost impossible for cops to nab them.

          One other thing, people rarely report these sorts of robberies anymore unless they have insurance and they lost a high value ticket item. Because people know the chances of cops retrieving stolen goods is next to zero since a lot is resold on Ebay almost immediately.

      1. In practice it can be hard to get a good enough quality video to convict someone as the video often has poor exposure or is at a bad angle.
        As for the robot calling the police this would be a bad idea as automated calls to 911 can get the people who own the robot in trouble if it ends up making a lot of false reports.
        IE robot gets attacks by a bird of prey or a dog could trigger such an event.
        Instead it would have to go back to the central control and they’ll have to make that decision.

      2. >Busting up a drone is nothing more than vandalism and by the time the police are notified and respond, the assailants will be long gone.

        Except for the part of discharging a firearm in a suburb, and the part where you’re surrounded by witnesses. If you think anyone can walk down the street of a residential area without every homebody taking note, much less fire off a few shotgun shells without anyone noticing, you either have exceptional privacy or live in Detroit.

        >In regards to using a firearm, why should anyone? It’s much more efficient to walk up to such a machine and give a good whack with a sledge hammer.

        Again, pretty easily noticed, destruction of property, and theft. And then, disguise or not, the thieves are left carrying a sledge hammer and a big Amazon box of toilet paper.

        >In case you haven’t noticed it’s become quite popular to steal packages left by UPS and Fedex on peoples doorstep.

        I’m really starting to think you do live in Detroit. Here in Florida just walking around someone’s house is enough to get at least one homebody to call the police.

        1. It depends what state you’re in whether “discharge of a firearm” in town is illegal, and if so, what the penalty is. (And also what counts as a firearm — some places include airguns, spudguns, slingshots, and bows.)

          In the state I live in, there is no state law on the subject, but many (I think most) municipalities of whatever size have an ordinance of some sort for firearms (and possibly other projectile weapons) applying everywhere in city limits. Minimum penalties for sure are typically well below 10 years, and in the handful of such ordinances I’m familiar with, even maximums are less; it’s typically a misdemeanor.

          When I was a teenager in the 90’s, I found out the town we then lived in was getting such an ordinance (and thus, that it did not have one previously; we had assumed it did); fortunately it only included firearms and combustion-type spudguns, so we were able to continue using airguns for pest control. So as late as that, there was _at least_ one town where no explicit law existed, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the only one. (Of course, criminal recklessness is still a thing, so I’m not suggesting one could have legally plinked in a parking lot of Main St. or anything.)

          It would be as foolish for me to assume all states’ laws are like mine as for you to assume all states’ laws are like yours.

    3. Actually it is inherently less of a crime than attacking a person which makes it theft and vandalism vs robbery and what kind of backwards fascist government hands out ten year minimums for discharging a firearm in a residential area.

        1. From your link:
          > The 10-20-Life law (Florida Statute 775.087) is a mandatory minimum sentencing law in the U.S. state of Florida. It primarily regards the use of a firearm during the commission of a forcible felony.

          See, that last bit makes a *big* difference. (Still don’t think I like it — in general, I feel that if you have such bad judges that you can’t trust their sentencing, you should get better judges rather than mandatory minimum sentencing laws, but it’s broadly reasonable.) The way you’ve been representing this law implied it covered _all_ discharge of a firearm in built-up areas, and if that actually were the case, I think I’d agree with Nitori in calling it fascist. (Though I probably wouldn’t say so, because not my state, not my business.)

          Backyard plinking is not typically a forcible felony, so not sure why you’re bringing it up, but I’ll bite. Not all guns are “blat blat glocks”, not all projectiles are hard to stop. If you wanna use a .22 to plink with a *solid* fence (overlapping slats, no daylight) or equivalent for a backstop, using CB caps or ratshot, it’s not _actually_ a problem, though you’d better talk to the neighbor behind the fence first so they know what’s going on. You plink with that same backstop and .22 LR cartridges, let alone centerfire cartridges, we’ve got a serious problem. (Fortunately, we’ve got existing laws to deal with such recklessness, whether a gun is involved or not.) More realistically, set up a decent earth berm so you’re shooting towards your own bloody house/garage (in case you miss high), and you can safely have at it with a good selection of handgun cartridges. (But not with a .308 or such.) Point is, the actual problem of endangering others varies depending on circumstances, so the crime should be tied to that, not to the mere discharge of a gun.

          That’s not to say “Discharge of a Firearm” statutes can’t be justified, either on the basis of noise (which you mentioned), or the police workload from nuisance gunfire reports, but they’re a very poor approach in dealing with the “someone could die” aspect, and as that’s the only reason that could justify a 10-year minimum sentence, such a law with such a sentence would be absurd.

  2. Okay, due to an interstellar jump to conclusions about my meaning and my point, and that I meant specific US cities with specific ethnic distributions I guess, and not anywhere else in the world where the same damn things happen no matter who is living there, are the three laws relevant to modern robotics? and therefore do we have a problem in ensuring task focus and ability to function in the real world, when a delivery bot encounters a 100% white homeless Vietnam veteran lying across a business doorway. (Thus obviously implying all other ethnicities were draft dodgers, where’s the sarcasm font when you need it.)

    So in this instance, the bot if following the first law, would have to have the ability to make sure said homo sapiens wasn’t dying of hypothermia or other causes, and under full expression of it, would be obliged to help or get help. The consistent getting of help in every case could be considered intrusive/disruptive. (As could rolling round with live camera everywhere. people objected to google glass remember.)

    Then if the robot can be delayed so easily, security becomes more of an issue when miscreants can just lay down in front of it so their esteemed colleagues can effect an appropriation of the goods. (I have this type of worry about how self driving cars will slow city traffic to permanent gridlock when pedestrians discover they can just walk out across the roadway whenever they feel like it.)

    Anyway, easy way to make a task not simple is add humans being natural dicks into it, and I’m not sure the AI to cope with that is there yet.

  3. I don’t see why it would be hard to prevent package theft. Just give the robot a locked box welded to the chassis and only open it when the robot’s gps coordinates match the delivery destination.

  4. Parcel Lockers are far simpler…

    If your self-driving car can just stop at the parcel locker near your home/office, you can jump out for 10 seconds to grab your delivery. It’s conceivable that every apartment building, maybe even every house, would have a standardised parcel locker (aka “mailbox”) that packages could be delivered to by a much simpler mechanism attached to the mail truck.

  5. Doing research is fine, and indeed good. But for this one I don’t see a plausible use case : the expense of the tech (up-front, maintenance, and the R&D bill must be enormous) for this robot would surely outweigh what a UPS delivery man is paid? Even long term.
    There might be ‘hidden’ costs (eg: sick leave) that a person would leverage on the employee, but I thought that many companies were now deliberately sidestepping such expenses with casual and/or contract employees?
    I’d like to see some genuine costings.

    1. Same as for any human job that’s been replaced by a robot. Robots can work 24/7/365. Any job where the items the robot handles or works on are always in exactly the same location – robots don’t need lighting. Robots don’t need health insurance, don’t take vacations, don’t need breaks for food or to smoke a cigarette. Robots can work in temperatures – high or low – that are uncomfortable or dangerous for humans. Toxic fumes and biological hazards don’t bother robots. Robots are considerably easier to protect from radiation than humans.

    2. No that you brought the topic up, I now believe those who “employ” robots here in the USA should be paying something into the Social Security/Medicare system. Because the use of robots eliminate both the employee and the employer contributions. Not that I expect that to happen, anymore than I expect the robots to go away.

      1. The use of robots to displace people is counterproductive for the simple reason that the displaced people don’t go away.

        So instead of paying a person a living wage, you have to pay the person a living wage AND sustain the robot which isn’t free either. It’s silly, and it lowers everyone’s living standards because some resources are diverted from the people to the robots.

        So the utopia where robots do all the work isn’t actually attainable, because generally speaking you’d always do better to not employ the robot and instead do the work yourself. Work is also a great moderator of apetite – the distribution of wealth should not be a political issue decided upon by vote or law, because that will lead to the collapse of democracy.

        1. “The use of a computer to displace people is counterproductive for the simple reason that the displaced people don’t go away.
          So instead of paying a person a living wage, you have to pay the person a living wage AND sustain the computer which isn’t free either.”

          “The use of an assembly line to displace people is counterproductive for the simple reason that the displaced people don’t go away.
          So instead of paying a person a living wage, you have to pay the person a living wage AND sustain the assembly line which isn’t free either.”

          “The use of a plow to displace people is counterproductive for the simple reason that the displaced people don’t go away.
          So instead of paying a person a living wage, you have to pay the person a living wage AND sustain the plow which isn’t free either.”

          See where this is going? According to you, we should get rid of ALL technology and everyone will be better off financially. Oh, wait, even the concept of wages requires keeping track of them, etc and the bookkeeping tools for that aren’t free, either.

          Technology is not why we have poor people. We’ve ALWAYS had the poor and the rich. Technology has actually RAISED the total standard-of-living overall. The issue is not that people can’t get work but the imbalance of the spread of resources. Not saying we should have it all split completely evenly (aka communism) but if you have a factory that produces $1,000,000 worth of goods and employees 20 people and you then add a robot that can do 50% of the work (for simplicity, we’ll assume the robot was free), you can either pay 10 people the same that you used to pay them and work them the same number of hours and pay them a total of 50% of what you used to pay and then they’d buy 50% of the goods from you that they used to buy (and then you spiral into bankruptcy) or you pay 20 people the same that you used to pay them but work them half as long. They then can still buy the same amount of goods and have more leisure time to boot.

          People aren’t displaced by robots/technology as much as the job they used to do is displaced. All they need is a NEW job to earn money. But if we can produce a GDP of $1,000,000,000,000 with everyone working 40 hours/week and then add technology to produce the same GDP with people working 10 hours/week, then everyone’s better off. But if you fire 75% of the people and then work the other 25% the same 40 hours/week, EVERYONE loses (not just those “displaced.”)

  6. Steve? Is that you, after all these years?

    (Am I the only one who pictured that robot with suspenders, high-water pants and goofy glasses and talking with a nasally voice? It was just moving backwards, though.)

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