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How Amazon’s delivery robots will navigate your sidewalk

Earlier this year, Amazon announced its Scout sidewalk delivery robot. At the time, details were sparse, except for the fact that the company had started to make deliveries in a neighborhood in Washington State. Today, at Amazon’s re:Mars conference, I sat down with Sean Scott, the VP in charge of Scout, to talk about how his team built the robot, how it finds its way around and what its future looks like.

These relatively small blue robots could be roaming a sidewalk near you soon, though as of now, Amazon isn’t quite ready to talk about when and where it will expand its network from its single neighborhood to other areas.

“For the last decade, we’ve invested billions of dollars in cargo planes and delivery vans, fulfillment center robots, and last holiday period, we shipped over a billion products with Prime free shipping,” Scott told me. “So it’s my job as VP of Amazon Scout to bring another new, innovative, safe and sustainable solution to this delivery network to help us really grow quickly and efficiently to meet customer demand.”

Currently, in Amazon’s trial, the robots are always accompanied by human assistants. Those assistants — and they probably look a bit like robot dog walkers as they trot through the neighborhood — are currently the ones who are taking the packages out of the robot when they arrive at their destination and put it on the customers’ doorsteps. For now, that also means the customers don’t have to be home, though chances are they will have to be once this project rolls out to more users.

As of now, when it’s ready to make deliveries, Amazon drives a large van to the neighborhood and the Scout robots leave from there and return when they are done. Scott wouldn’t say how far the robots can travel, but it seems reasonable to assume that they could easily go for a mile or two.

As we learned earlier this year, Amazon did make a small acquisition to kickstart the program but it’s worth stressing that it now does virtually all of the work in house, including building and assembling the robots and writing the software for it.

“For Scout we’re actually owning the entire development from the industrial design to the actual hardware, mechanical, electrical, the software, the systems, manufacturing and operations,” said Scott. “That really helps us control everything we’re doing.” Having that end-to-end control enables the team to iterate significantly faster.

The team even built a rig to test the Scout’s wheels and in the process, learned that the wheels’ material was actually too soft to survive the rigors of daily sidewalk driving for long.

Inside its labs, the team also built a sidewalk environment for real-world testing and did most of the initial training in the real world but also heavily relies on working with simulations now. Indeed, since there are basically no maps for navigating sidewalks, the team has to build its own maps of …read more

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