'Last 50 feet' could be rich terrain for Princeton-developed robots

Written by
Alaina O'Regan, Office of the Dean for Research
March 17, 2023

A robotics innovation from Jaime Fernández Fisac's lab will receive university funding to aid in the transition from early-stage research into real-world products and services.

The Intellectual Property (IP) Accelerator Fund, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, provides support to researchers who have made a discovery but need to conduct extra studies to demonstrate that the discovery can meet a societal need. Such studies drive the research forward and can be essential for attracting outside investment and funding from government small-business programs.

students work on trucks as professor leans in for a closer view
Jaime Fernández Fisac, center, plays a key role in Princeton's multi-disciplinary robotics initiative. He is now working with former students to translate their research into marketable products. Video still by Daniel Quiyu

Through the Fund, University researchers can receive up to $100,000 for prototyping, experiments and other efforts that advance the state of the technology and demonstrate the value of a discovery.

Jaime Fernández Fisac, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, along with Robert Shi, who earned his master’s in electrical and computer engineering in 2022, and their team are developing a new robotic system to deliver packages from delivery vehicles to customers’ doorsteps, aiming to double the package-delivery efficiency of human drivers by 2030. The design combines two commonly used modes of robot mobility, legs and wheels, allowing robots to strategically navigate both flat terrain and stairs.

Projects are selected for funding following a competitive application process that includes peer review and evaluation based on scientific and technical merit, innovation and novelty, the ability of the technology to meet a market or societal need, and the potential for public benefit.

Numerous organizations are working to address the “last-mile delivery problem,” which involves transporting goods from a distribution hub to the final destination, considered the most expensive and time-consuming step. The team tackles the problem by focusing on the transportation of goods from the sidewalk to the customer’s doorstep. The robots are designed to work with delivery vans that will transport, dispatch and retrieve delivery robots along a route, increasing delivery efficiency. The design is composed of two identical, separable pieces with removable wheels and legs. The device’s adjustable dimensions make it adaptable for environmental conditions, and the ease of disassembly decreases maintenance cost and complexity. The IP Accelerator award will enable the researchers to build prototypes that demonstrate the devices’ potential to optimize delivery.

Editor's note: This story was adapted from a longer story that includes information on all six of this year's IP Accelerator Fund projects.