BOTS EVERYWHERE

Fedex is using autonomous robots to essentially replace the mailroom clerk

Over the last year, FedEx has been working with Savioke, a Silicon Valley company that makes autonomous indoor delivery robots, to develop a robot delivery system for its repair facility in Collierville, Tennessee. The bots are used by workers to move items around the office, cutting down on wasted time, and storage space, as workers no longer have to spend time walking around picking up and dropping off items, or need a mailroom clerk to do it for them.

Savioke has spent the last few years building its Relay robot, a stout trashcan-height bot that can autonomously ferry about 10 pounds of goods around. The robot combines a range of technologies to see and navigate the world on its own, including lidar (the laser radar technologies powering the eyes of self-driving cars) and depth-sensing 3D vision cameras (similar to those found in a Microsoft Kinect). The company has been building relationships with hotels to use Relays as replacements for the menial tasks done by concierge and other hotel staff. Instead of a worker delivering room service or a toothbrush, hotels can now press a button on a tablet, have a Relay come to them, load it up, and send it to a guest, freeing up their time to do more important tasks.

Savioke robot
A Relay robot in a hotel, with an affectionate child for scale. (Savioke)

Hotels need to install a wireless system in their elevators so that Relays can open the doors on their own. The bots, which can be rented from Savioke for $2,000 a month, can navigate through areas that have been mapped, even if there are new obstacles, such as chairs that have been moved around, or people. Relays have completed over 100,000 autonomous deliveries at a range of hotels owned by Sheraton, Aloft, Holiday Inn, Westin, and others. The robots make little beeps as they carry out their errands, and the touchscreen on their fronts tell passersby what they’re up to as they’re out. When they show up to a guest’s door, they open their cargo door, say hello on the screen, and let the guests interact by pushing a few buttons to say whether they were happy with their delivery. Savioke’s robots have also started popping up at a few other office facilities around the US:

But Savioke’s partnership with FedEx hints that the company has ambitions beyond the hospitality industry. “Our goal is to change the way we think about moving items from one place to another,” Adrian Canoso, Savioke’s head of product and design, told Quartz. Just about every office, apartment complex, hospital, and warehouse in the world has items that people waste hours moving around each day. Whether it’s packages going from a lobby to an apartment, or medical supplies being transported from one hospital ward to another—there are always little things that waste so much time when added up over the course of the work day. For FedEx, this means repair staff working on complex devices don’t have to worry about remembering where the product they’re working on needs to go next—they can just call the Relay and send it along. “We want Relay to be pretty much everywhere,” Canoso said.

A Relay in an apartment lobby.
A Relay in an apartment lobby. (Savioke)

FedEx is currently using seven Relay robots in its Tennessee facility, as well as one at a Kinkos (a copy and a mailing chain it owns) in Manhattan. Canoso said FedEx’s Relays have completed tens of thousands of deliveries, and have traveled over 1,000 miles through its offices. He added that Savioke didn’t work with FedEx to set up the bot in New York—the company just wanted to experiment and see if it was something it could use.

FedEx wasn’t immediately available to comment on whether it plans to add more robots to its offices. In a recent speech, FedEx CEO Fred Smith said the company is exploring a range of robotic offerings to streamline its business, from robots like Relay to ones that could help load packages off of delivery trucks.

In the repair center, the robots work together to complete requests, meaning the Relay that dropped off your item might not be the one that picks it up—through Savioke’s control software, the robots can handle multiple orders at once. At the Kinkos, the robot is being used as a gofer, bringing items from the storage area in the back of the store to the front for customers. Smith recently said that workers named the robot in New York Sam, and one of the bots in Tennessee “Lil’ Rico.” FedEx works with Samsung to repair its broken products, meaning that theoretically, someone in Manhattan could drop off a broken Samsung phone with Sam, have it picked up in Tennessee by Lil’ Rico, who brings it to an engineer to fix, and then it’s shipped back to Sam (presumably using FedEx) to deliver to the customer.

Savioke robot
A Relay in a repair facility—not FedEx’s. (Savioke)

Obviously, a few other humans would need to interact with that broken phone right now (such as the person working with the customer, and those who would carry out the cross-country shipping). But in the future, it’s entirely conceivable that robots like Savioke’s, which are just as easy for customers to use as employees, could be implemented across an entire business operation. At a store, one robot could in theory, take your order, go pick it up from another robot that received the order over wifi and got it ready, load it up, and bring it back to you, all without you having to interact with a single person.

And it’s possible that we’ll see more little robots like the Relay scurrying around as we go about our days. Startups like Starship are already using diminutive robots to deliver take-out and groceries to customers in the UK and the US, and Amazon, Google, and others want to deliver packages to homes with drones. Even Domino’s thinks robots are an efficient way to deliver pizza. Many of these bots work on subscription model’s like Savioke’s, too. Perhaps someday, we’ll have robot butlers like Relay that we can tell, “I want the usual from China King for dinner,” and it can go fetch our General Tso’s Chicken without us even having to take our eyes off the television.

But building robots that can navigate the world on their own (especially without any preexisting maps) isn’t easy, and most of these robots can’t carry that much at any one time. It does raise the question, though: In the future, with all this unnecessary moving cut out of our lives, what will we do with all this newfound spare time?

Read this next: The future is a place where we won’t have to talk to or hear from anyone we don’t want to

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