FedEx gets into the autonomous vehicle game with a sidewalk bot

Walgreens is one of the retailers joining in the testing program


Autonomous vehicles are all the rage in Silicon Valley, between pilotless drones to self-driving cars, trucks and other vehicles. Now, FedEx is stepping into the fray, working with DEKA Development & Research Corp., the company most famous for the Segway vehicle. FedEx is “prototyping and testing” (according to its website; the company’s news release is vague on whether this is a pilot or a near-commercial service) a vehicle called the FedEx SameDay Bot. The vehicle, roughly about the size of a young child, looks as if it could carry a medium-sized and -weighted parcel, and uses some of the same Lidar technology being developed for autonomous cars to navigate streets, steps and traffic signals. The company will be testing it this summer in Memphis, its home base.

Among retailers intending to join in the testing is Walgreens. “we’re on a journey to leverage the latest in innovative technologies to provide a differentiated pharmacy and health care experience, and delivery solutions that bring our services to our customers wherever they are and whenever they need them,” said Alex Gourlay, co-COO, Walgreens Boots Alliance. A slick video, available on YouTube, shows the Bot delivering medicine to a worried mother whose child is sick in bed.

Dean Kamen, founder of DEKA, notes that the Bot is based on the company’s already commercialized iBot Personlized Mobility Device, a type of wheelchair that has been FDA-approved and is used by persons with limited mobility. “By leveraging this base in an additional application, we hope that the iBot will become even more accessible to those who need it for their own mobility.”

It’s easy to blow off the FedEx Bot as a publicity gimmick, but it’s interesting to note that a similar application, drone delivery of medicine, is proceeding in Africa, where a company called Zipline has been delivering needed medical supplies in Rwanda since 2016, and is about to do the same in Ghana. UPS and DHL have also experimented with drone delivery. It might be years, if ever, when the FedEx Bot is tooling down city streets, but the problems associated with last-mile delivery (or, as FedEx puts it, “on-demand, hyperlocal delivery”) in medicine are well recognized.