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These Bots are on a Roll: Robots Find Niche in Last-Mile Logistics, Physical Security

Pretty soon the clothing you order for same-day delivery—maybe it was a last-minute wardrobe crisis—could arrive at your doorstop toted not by a smiling courier but wheeled up in one of the mini mobile bots making inroads into the fiercely competitive logistics space.

Autonomous mobile robots commonly found in warehouses and e-commerce fulfillment centers are assuming new form factors, finding novel applications shuttling goods to buyers as the last link in the delivery process and adding a commanding presence in the security sector. These slow-rolling robots already are tackling small-payload deliveries in some urban centers and securing shopping mall parking lots and interiors, for example. They’re poised for widespread deployment in the near future as people grow more comfortable being around and interacting with intelligent, autonomous devices.

“The last mile of the delivery chain is its least productive. In contrast to other steps where large payloads traverse fixed routes, here small payloads are delivered to customized destinations. As such, this step represents more than 50 percent of the total cost,” IDTechEx said in a release. “Autonomous mobile robots now seek to automate this step and thus raise productivity.”

However, with new technology come new headaches. Mobile delivery robot Marble teamed up with Yelp Eat 24 to ferry food to customers in San Francisco last year, but quickly found its operations curtailed by legislation introduced to restrict the rolling robots to specific neighborhoods. When he couldn’t secure sufficient votes for an outright ban, city supervisor Norman Yee settled for a proposal stipulating that companies working on autonomous mobile robots could apply for permits and test their devices only within industrial zones, according to Recode. The move flies in the face of the region’s tech-friendly image, especially when other states like Idaho and Virginia are actively encouraging autonomous delivery systems through legislation, citing their role in reducing street traffic and congestion. In Washington, D.C., Marble and restaurant delivery partner DoorDash are still using the mobile bots to fulfill some orders.

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Meanwhile, spaces such as shopping centers are deploying autonomous robots as a “force multiplier” in their security operations, complementing human personnel by automating patrols and using a plethora of sensors to detect potential intruders or potential hazards such as CO2 leaks, for example. The Westfield Valley Fair shopping Center in San Jose, Calif., piloted indoor mobile security robots from Knightscope, which also designs bots that can patrol outdoor perimeters and parking lots.

“In typical arrangements, they include cameras, two-way audio system thermal sensors, gas sensors, and so on. For outdoor purposes, these security robots are more rugged and can reply on GPS, whereas for indoor they require GPS free autonomy together with sleeker designs,” IDTechEX said. “These robots will not fully replace human workers. Instead, they will mainly complement them by automating tedious tasks. As with many other forms of mobile robots, they will change the nature of the job, putting an emphasis on the remote control of fleets.”

Despite their consumer-facing applications, delivery and security bots aren’t designed with the same kind of “humanoid” features seen on Pepper the retail robot; rather, they’re designed to be functional first and foremost. The Cobalt security bot, built for office buildings and the like, incorporates materials unorthodox for robots—such as anodized aluminum and touch-friendly fabrics—that provide more of the aesthetic-minded experience commonly found in high-end corporate campuses.