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?
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.