Need something from Target or Walgreens ASAP, but don’t want to go to a store to get it? Or craving a pizza but have concerns about the environmental impact of delivery by car? FedEx is developing a robot for that.
Roxo, FedEx’s autonomous robot, was introduced in 2019 to broaden the company’s same-day delivery service. The city of Manchester, NH partnered with a local corporation and the Memphis-based delivery giant to pilot the new technology, setting the stage for advancements in contactless, emission-free delivery within the community.
Faster, Greener, and More Localized Deliveries
Retailers and delivery companies from Amazon to startups like Starship Technologies have been experimenting with automated solutions to reduce delivery time, and lower emissions caused by traditional truck service.
FedEx has focused its innovation on local deliveries, knowing the market for short-distance purchases was significant. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a large percentage of retail delivery was being done close to home, notes the company:
Now that demand for contactless deliveries has increased due to health concerns, same-day autonomous delivery devices could play a major role in jumpstarting local retail.
Meet Roxo, the FedEx Robot
When it’s rolling down the street (or making its debut on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon), Roxo looks a bit like a mini refrigerator on wheels. The machine is roughly chest-height next to a person, with a white rectangular container body set on a solid base of wheels.
The inspiration for the device came from iBOT, a standing wheelchair that can climb stairs, which is produced by Dean Kamen’s Manchester-based company DEKA Research and Development Corp. (Kamen is also well-known for another mobility invention: the Segway.)
FedEx partnered with DEKA to build its new delivery solution using the wheelchair’s base, which has three pairs of wheels that can be used on stairs and curbs. The partnership was a win-win for FedEx and DEKA: an innovative approach to solving same-day delivery challenges, plus an opportunity to mass-produce (and therefore make more accessible) the iBOT wheelchair base. Says Kamen:
Beyond the base, a mix of LIDAR sensors and cameras keeps Roxo aware of its surroundings, and machine learning helps the robot adapt to different road conditions, such as unpaved surfaces, puddles, or pedestrians.
The main compartment can carry up to 100 pounds of packages. The robot travels up to 10 miles per hour and runs on battery power, allowing for a zero-emissions delivery.
Revisiting City Laws to Allow Innovation
Thanks to the partnership between DEKA and FedEx, DEKA’s home city of Manchester was tapped as the pilot location for the new device. To support the trial, the city worked to temporarily adjust city rules, suspending an ordinance that prevented driving on sidewalks. Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig declared that the project helped position Manchester as a leader in innovation:
FedEx expects to roll out Roxo at scale later in 2020, once final bugs are worked out. The company already has lined up partners from CVS to McDonalds to AutoZone, and this list is likely to grow.
Now, as COVID-19 impacts local business and drives demand for more delivery-based shopping, cities like Manchester that have piloted Roxo (or other autonomous delivery technology) may have an unexpected advantage: they've already laid the groundwork for easy adoption of the devices. They’ve had the opportunity to experiment with the technology. They’ve learned what safety restrictions need to be implemented or changed. They’ve tested which intersections or surfaces may be difficult. And they’ve already made citizens familiar with the sight of robots rolling through their city.
By partnering with the private sector and participating in innovative technology pilots like FedEx’s delivery robot, cities like Manchester are in a better position to adopt new solutions and react to evolving community needs.