Serve Robotics’ new autonomous sidewalk delivery robots don’t require human assist

Serve Robotics, an Uber spinout that builds sidewalk delivery robots, is deploying its next generation of robots that are capable of completing some commercial deliveries without a human in the loop, according to the startup. That means in certain operational design domains, or geofenced areas, Serve won’t be relying on remote operators to teleassist robots or followers to trail behind the robots for safety.

Most companies in the industry, like Coco¬†and Kiwibot, lean on remote operators to monitor autonomous deliveries and take over driving in case the robot stops or needs help, so Serve’s milestone is indeed a step toward progress in robotic deliveries.

“The problem we have solved is that relying on teleoperation for safety means you must count on 100% reliable LTE networks and 100% mistake-free operators, both of which are impossible to achieve consistently,” Ali Kashani, co-founder and CEO of Serve, told TechCrunch. “Consider what happens when a safety situation requires human attention, but the video is delayed or the connection has dropped? With Level 4 robots, humans are not needed to be in the loop to ensure safety.”

Serve began rolling out its next generation of robots in December and says it recently completed its first delivery at Level 4 autonomy, which SAE defines as a system that can drive autonomously as long as certain conditions are met and will not require a human to take over driving. The startup’s robots currently have L4 capabilities in some neighborhoods in Los Angeles, such as Hollywood, where Serve has been operating since 2018, Kashani said.

“When the robot is in a given area where Level 4 is enabled, the remote video feed turns off and the robot continues navigating autonomously without requiring a human in the loop,” Kashani told TechCrunch. “The robots can always request assistance if in need of one, say if they come across something unexpected. They also turn video on while crossing intersections. But for the majority of the time they operate autonomously.”

Until autonomous vehicles reach Level 5 capability, under which the system can operate in all conditions without a human, there will always be a long tail of edge cases that robots are unfamiliar with. Relying on humans for those makes sense from both a safety and commercialization perspective, said Kashani.

Serve’s new robots are equipped with a range of active sensors, like ultrasonics and lidar sensors from Ouster, and passive sensors like cameras to help navigate busy sidewalks. The startup has developed specific capabilities for its bots, like automatic crash prevention, vehicle collision avoidance and fail-safe emergency braking, according to the company. The computations needed to produce those capabilities in real-time are powered by chip-maker Nvidia’s Jetson platform, which is designed specifically for robots and other autonomous machines.

The company raised a $13 million expanded seed round last month, which it said would be used to fund accelerated expansion plans into new customer segments and geographic areas. In line with those stated goals, Kashani said Serve’s next steps are to deploy its next-gen robots in more areas, starting with expanding in Los Angeles.