Autonomous grocery delivery robots from Russia’s Yandex walk the sidewalks in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Yandex has partnered with Amer’s Deli to deliver groceries using the Rovers, six-wheeled delivery vans that weigh about 150 pounds and are big enough to carry the equivalent of five large pizzas. The company expects to expand its delivery range here to include more restaurants by autumn.
According to Vorobev, ramping up those operations this spring will not be as troublesome as starting over, also because Yandex already has self-driving test vehicles on the streets of Ann Arbor. The company used seven of its Hyundai Sonata test vehicles last year. The self-driving software that supports this operation on the road is the same basic software stack that the rovers use on the sidewalk.
“We know where the traffic lights are and we know where the crosswalks are,” said Vorobev. “We can train the robots using the data from the cars.”
Such flexibility may be unusual in the industry. Waymo and Aurora have demonstrated their self-driving systems on both passenger cars and Class 8 trucks. Yandex may be the first to tailor a system originally built for passenger cars for use in delivery vehicles.
As a result, the delivery business is a growing part of the company’s self-driving ambitions. The company launched the rovers, equipped with four cameras and a lidar sensor, in Skolkovo, a suburb of Moscow, in April 2020 when the pandemic broke out. To date they have made more than 7,000 deliveries in Skolkovo and Innopolis. They can be fitted with special snow tires to work in rough weather.
“Delivery is the starting point,” said Vorobev. “Especially now when people are counting more and more on delivery and we can deliver without contact.”
Yandex isn’t the only one keeping an eye on increased consumer interest in delivery services during the pandemic and choosing Ann Arbor as an early testing ground. A Michigan startup, Refraction AI, tested a fleet of delivery robots around town and made deliveries for a local grocery store.
There are key differences: Refraction’s three-wheeled REV-1 vehicles use bike paths and travel at 12 to 15 miles per hour. In recent tests, they have a human escort who lags behind on a bike.
Should they get into a situation they cannot handle, the Yandex rovers can be remotely controlled via teleoperations based in Moscow. You travel on sidewalks at about 5 miles an hour. This is slightly faster than the average pedestrian, and following a rover on its route requires a brisk pace.