MANCHESTER, NH — There were several takeaways from Tuesday’s official launch of a small but mighty delivery robot in Manchester, one of them being that human pizza delivery jobs are safe, for now.
That came directly from inventor Dean Kamen, whose iBOT wheelchair technology is the basis for developing a “last mile” automated delivery bot for FedEx. The result, Roxo SameDay Bot, made its official debut Tuesday as it rolled its way up Elm Street and ceremoniously arrived at City Hall, delivering a small purple gift bag full of FedEx swag to Mayor Joyce Craig.
One small delivery for a robot; one giant leap for the technological future of mankind.
It’s a technological advancement that’s been 20 years in the making, as Kamen explained his long-term relationship with FedEx founder Fred Smith, a partnership which began when Kamen asked Smith if FedEx would be the official delivery service for transporting all his FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) team robots.
“We only had 50 teams back then. This year we have 72,000 schools and 173 cities running regional events and, to this day, FedEx moves every package for free,” Kamen said, acknowledging that the two entrepreneurs have a shared passion for three things: their businesses, education and veterans. Smith served two tours in Vietnam, and earned a Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts. Kamen’s technology is aimed at mobilizing those with disabilities, including injured veterans. “I owe enormous gratitude to Fred Smith.”
Kamen went on to describe the genesis of Roxo (which means “purple” in Portuguese, a nod to FedEx’s purple branding).
“A couple years ago Fred asked me for a favor. I said, whatever it is – if it’s legal – I’ll do it.” The request was for Kamen to help design “the world’s best last-mile pedestrian-friendly delivery device,” and Kamen saw an opportunity to leverage Smith’s request into something bigger than both of them: Mass production of his iBOT base.
“What if we pulled the seat off the iBOT and put a cargo pod on there,” said Kamen, creating an opportunity to develop the next generation of costly iBOT technology, capable of moving a 300-pound human up and down stairs, in quantity, to drive down the cost of production and make iBOT-propelled transport available for the the disabled.
Smith was so excited about the prospect he flew into Manchester for a demo. The rest is history, including Tuesday’s fanfare for Roxo at City Hall.
Although the delivery robot is still “learning,” it’s already cut in half the time it takes to roll from the DEKA office in the millyard to Elm Street, about 10 minutes, moving at a “pedestrian’s pace.” Kamen said those who fear robots taking over the future, or eliminating jobs, need to think bigger.
“Look, pizza delivery guys or anyone who asks, ‘Aren’t you worried about advanced technology ruining the world?’ I say show me an example in history where new technology didn’t create more and better jobs. Just show me one,” Kamen said.
He used the example of a bulldozer replacing ditch-diggers in a continent now covered with superhighways, a mechanized construction industry that has created an ecosystem for those who design and build projects, assemble and operate machinery, and even repair them.
“I don’t know how many people want to have a back-breaking job if those same people can drive a bulldozer,” Kamen said. “You can’t find a human activity – not a single one – where a better way to do it came along and it hurt industry. It gives people more opportunities and better careers,” replacing dangerous low-paying jobs with safer, cleaner technology-driven jobs.
For now, Roxo will be focused on navigating city sidewalks, respecting pedestrian right-of-way, dodging stop-and-go traffic as guided by the cloud, and the ongoing programming tweaks by a team of DEKA engineers, who will continue to shadow Roxo’s every move.
FedEx vice president of service experience leadership Rebecca Yeung envisions the future, where a Roxo bot can deliver pizza or prescriptions right to your door, as well as that “last mile” of package delivery “designed to help retailers making cost-effective same day last-mile deliveries to customers” that currently require human legwork.
“More testing and safety first. We want to fully test it, so while we don’t have a timeline, we’re working toward a solo run once the technology is proven,” Yeung said.
Watch Roxo navigating along Elm Street with his DEKA “street team.”
Mayor Joyce Craig said it is thrilling for Manchester, a city of “firsts,” that has transitioned from the textile industry to a tech-based ecosystem.
“Our millyard is a hub of cutting-edge technology and innovation bringing the best and brightest to the Queen City,” Craig said, adding personal testimony to the life-changing iBOT technology developed at DEKA.
“My Uncle Bob participated more than 20 years ago in [the iBOT motorized wheelchair pilot] so I grew up hearing about the impact it has on individual lives. I’m excited we’re able to provide that technology to others to lead a better life,” Craig said.
Among those who came out to see Roxo’s historic maiden delivery were Austin Shalit, a senior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who works for DEKA developing software for FIRST teams. Seeing this kind of innovation here in New Hampshire encourages and inspires Shalit. And while he acknowledges that with artificial intelligence comes the need for balancing of ethical concerns, robot technology is here to stay.
“There’s definitely some ethical considerations that all of us think about on a daily basis. It’s definitely a balancing act, and we’re not going in blindly. But the way I see it is that people don’t need to be worried right now about robots taking over. It’s very exciting. We’re making significant progress every day, and we’d be crazy to sit around and do nothing and watch the rest of the world advance while we remain stagnant. Doing nothing, in terms of development, is not an option,” Shalit said.
Also there for Roxo’s debut were NH State Reps Amanda and Andrew Bouldin, of Manchester, who admitted to being all at once “dorky and excited” about the burgeoning technology.
“I’m so excited,” Amanda Bouldin said. “It’s really cool to have technology like this in Manchester. I can’t wait to mail myself something.”
As lawmakers they also both acknowledged that New Hampshire must review and update its current privacy and wiretapping laws to keep up with the changes in technology, citing current cases involving Apple’s Siri and the capacity for “listening” and surveillance that goes along with smart devices.
She and her husband had questions – like how Roxo manages crosswalks, or how many packages a day he can deliver.
“We really want to know if it will know to go for the side door, you know, when there’s a faded sign that says, ‘FedEx deliveries, use the side door,” said Amanda Bouldin.
And after the crowd dispersed, they had a chance to ask Kamen that very question. Of course, he had the answer.
“The people that plan the paths will talk to the people who order the products and whichever way they tell us to go, that’s where we’ll go,” Kamen said.