Amazon seeks patent for autonomous ground vehicle that picks up your packages

Autonomous ground vehicle
A diagram shows the configuration for an autonomous ground vehicle with two compartments. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Is a robotic retriever in your future?

Amazon thinks so: In a patent application published today, inventors working for the Seattle-based online retailer lay out a detailed plan for an autonomous ground vehicle that can roll out from someone’s home, pick up a package from a delivery truck and bring it to the right place.

The boxy robot depicted in the 2016 application looks a lot like the delivery robot that Starship Technologies has built for delivering meals on wheels. But the AGV’s intended function is more of a throwback to the 1950s idyll in which the family dog fetches the newspaper and lays it at its master’s slippered feet.

In this case, you may share the beast with your neighbors.

“The AGVs may be owned by individual users and/or may service a group of users in a given area (e.g. in an apartment building, neighborhood, etc.),” inventors Tye Michael Brady and Ethan Zane Evans write. Brady is chief technologist at Amazon Robotics, while Evans is Amazon’s vice president for Twitch Prime, commerce and developer success.

The concept envisions a troop of AGVs lining up at a delivery truck, receiving their packages in turn and transporting them to the assigned address, or a designated delivery locker. You could even give them access codes to enter your garage or go through your front door for a delivery, a la Amazon Key.

AGV delivery chain
This diagram shows how Amazon would manage a delivery chain that includes an AGV, which is indicated by the number 200. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

How would the AGVs be controlled? They could be loitering in the common areas of the apartment building, or biding their time in the robotic equivalent of a doghouse, when suddenly they sense the approach of the delivery truck (or receive their orders from Central Dispatch). Then they’d hit the road, navigating autonomously to meet the truck at the pickup point.

The 17-page application goes into lots of detail about how the delivery could be done. If opening the door and dropping off the package won’t work, Amazon could use a keypad locking system, with the recipient required to enter the correct code to open the robot’s hatch.

AGVs could be linked together: If you wanted to lend a book to friends who live a few blocks away, you could have your AGV meet their AGV halfway for a handoff.

The application even suggests the robot’s package compartment could be refrigerated, which widens the spectrum of goods that could be delivered by AGVs. The patent application literally includes the example of a robot’s ears perking up when it hears the sound of an ice cream truck.

Amazon typically doesn’t comment on its patent applications, and there’s no guarantee that an AGV will be unlocking your front door anytime soon. However, the concept helps fill in the “last mile” gap in a delivery infrastructure that could also include airships, underwater fulfillment centers, self-driving trucks and talking delivery drones.

O Brave New World, that has such robots in it!

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