Amazon unveiled its six-wheel delivery robot, Scout, in January 2019, but has only been slowly expanding its field tests. After launching in a single neighborhood in Snohomish County, Washington and then adding a larger site in Irvine, California last August, Scout is now undergoing trials in Atlanta, Georgia and Franklin, Tennessee, Amazon announced today.
It’s unclear how many robots are on the road and how many customers Scout is serving. But it seems the bots are very much still prototypes, and are being treated with the caution appropriate for a company that’s built its reputation on speedy and reliable delivery.
Amazon says it has a “small number of Amazon Scout devices” operating in both Atlanta and Franklin, which will be delivering “Monday through Friday, during daylight hours.” The devices navigate autonomously but are accompanied by a human minder at all times (an “Amazon Scout Ambassador” in the retailer’s corporate jargon).
Amazon’s Scout robots navigate autonomously, but are accompanied by human minders at all times. Image: Amazon
Delivery robots have become a fast-moving arena in recent years, with a number of startups fielding their own devices. Some robots are the size of hampers, like Amazon’s Scout, while others are more like small cars. With the advent of coronavirus, interest in the technology has increased yet again as companies look for ways to minimize human contact and demand for home deliveries booms.
Amazon says its trials of Scout have continued during the pandemic, helping the company to “meet increased customer demand by supplementing our transportation network.”
But while early trials of delivery robots are promising, it’s not yet clear if the machines can handle the complexity of the real world. Navigating clutter-free sidewalks in suburbia is easy enough, but dealing with all the hazards of a city street is much tougher. And despite the promise of AI to give these robots the smarts they need to steer themselves, companies still rely on human drivers operating machines remotely to make the rounds.