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Robotics and the Post-Pandemic World

As society continues to remain under lockdown due to COVID-19, it has become increasingly apparent and important that the world post-COVID-19 is equipped with technologies that not only can fight viral diseases, but can also protect the health and safety of the people, facilitate economic activities, and maintain societal stability. In the field of robotics and autonomous vehicles (AVs), these technologies have been up and coming, and the current pandemic has only accelerated the necessity of their development and deployment in order to bring us closer to a robotic future. For instance, how to avoid human-to-human contact and prevent the spread of contagious diseases are becoming huge concerns. AVs and drone delivery networks will aid us in tackling these issues.

Nuro partnered with Walmart in 2019 to deliver groceries

Autonomous delivery makes it easier for people to get food, medicine, and other essential supplies during the pandemic, while reducing the number of traffic accidents and saving people’s time. While some self-driving companies have been temporarily shut down, Nuro, an American robotics startup based in Mountain View, California, is still delivering groceries in partnership with Kroger in Houston1. Nuro’s AV achieves safety in its lower operating speeds, and lighter and narrower vehicle design. Nuro’s deployment of up to 5,000 of its R2 vehicles has recently been approved by U.S. safety officials, which is exciting news.

Another self-driving technology company, TuSimple, has had its Level 4 autonomous commercial trucks running cargo trips in Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas1. The startup, whose approach is “purpose built for trucks and large vehicles at high speed, which require perception technology that can’t be met with tech for passenger cars,” has 18 commercial partners, including UPS and USPS3. In addition to making commercial trips, TuSimple’s autonomous trucks have been active during the pandemic in providing pro-bono services to the Arizona Food Bank. Further, TuSimple recently announced that it has partnered with auto supplier ZF, one of the largest Tier 1 suppliers of automotive parts and technology, in order to commercialize its autonomous trucks.

TuSimple’s autonomous truck on the highway

Drone delivery networks offer efficient logistics and an on-demand inventory system in both urban and rural areas. In healthcare, flight data logs from drones may be able to serve as an early warning system for potential outbreaks. Since the start of the current pandemic, the FAA has received inquiries about expandeddrone operations to respond to COVID-19.

In Africa, Zipline runs the world’s largest drone delivery network, with over 1 million autonomous miles flown and 60,000+ vaccine, medicine, and blood delivery drops1, 5. Launched in Rwanda in 2016, the San Francisco-based company now transports roughly 75% of the country’s blood supply outside of its capital city, Kigali. From the start, Zipline has been developing its own hardware, avionics, and flight-control algorithms, which enables it to continue to innovate. In May 2019, Zipline moved into Ghana—and in less than a year, its network of drone deliveries was able to reach 2,000 hospitals and cover 12 million people. Currently the company operates throughout Rwanda and Ghana, bringing life-saving medicines to people in need. Zipline is seeking to expand into the U.S. and India, and could soon hit the ground within weeks of getting the greenlight.

Zipline’s drone delivering medical supplies

Fresh off 100,000 flights and 6,000 customer drop-offs, Alphabet’s drone unit Wing is running delivery services in Virginia, Finland, and Australia, where the company has partnered with local shops7. Customers use Wing’s app to make an order, and their deliveries can arrive within minutes thanks to drones that can travel at around 65 mph. Wing is currently the only service offering drone deliveries to the general public in North America, although Amazon is also working to launch its own Prime Air service.

Alphabet’s Wing drone making deliveries for Walgreen’s

These technologies will aid in ensuring quick and efficient deliveries that are not only convenient for individuals receiving deliveries, but also safer. With these quickly evolving developments in AVs and drones, robots that can take over tasks ranging from simple and day-to-day errands to dangerous or urgent deliveries will soon come to a neighborhood near all of us.

-Alycia Lee, 2019 RTC Fellow

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