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EPFL tests out self-driving delivery service

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EPFL’s Lausanne campus serves as a testing ground for a high-tech delivery service that uses a self-driving van. A pioneering initiative that is set to develop further.

Most of the research conducted at EPFL takes place deep inside a laboratory, far from the public eye – but not all of it. That’s because the EPFL campus itself is a living lab. For around two months since October 12, 2020, researchers uses this living lab to test out a self-driving delivery service. The delivery van will be hard to miss – bright yellow with giant screens on the front and back and small boxes on the sides. It will follow a route from the Esplanade to the Rolex Learning Center, Estudiantines student housing complex and EPFL Innovation Park.

The research project – called ADORE, for Autonomously Delivered Orders from Restaurants at EPFL – is designed to explore the various aspects of self-driving technology: robotics, computer science, mechanical engineering, telecommunications and interactions with road users. It’s being coordinated jointly by the EPFL Sustainability office and the Catering, Shops and Hotels unit, and involves using self-driving electric vehicles to deliver meals and other products.

The electric-powered delivery van is 1 meter wide, just under 3 meters long and 1.8 meters high. It’s equipped with over 15 sensors, 5 cameras, a touch screen and a satellite antenna that employs new technology allowing the vehicle to be continuously located. It can’t carry passengers, but can carry food and other goods in its 11 side boxes, which are locked with a code. Although the van can theoretically travel at up to 50 km/h, its speed will be capped at 6 km/h on campus and a student always accompanies it. The electric vehicle was designed by Chinese firm Neolix and has been made available for the pilot test by Swiss Post, the delivery experts.

© EPFL 2020 / Alain Herzog

A pilot test in three phases

The pilot test is scheduled to take place in three phases. The first has last around two weeks, during which the operators have familiarized themselves with the vehicle and the EPFL community has been informed about this newcomer to campus.

The second phase has also last two weeks and has entailed delivering meals to a test group of users. The van has picked up meals independently (but with a student closeby) at the Takinoa restaurant in the Rolex Learning Center and delivered them to the Esplanade, Starling hotel, Estudiantines and Innovation Park. Users were able to select a delivery time and place, and when the van was around 300 meters from the stop, it has sent a text message containing the code for opening the box where the meal was stored. Another text message has been sent out when the van arrived at the stop. Users could put their dirty dishes from the previous day back in the box. This phase was intended to test out the technical components of the service (e.g., the systems for managing orders, pick-up and delivery locations, and delivery times) and evaluate the overall user experience.

« Our campus is a genuine living lab, and we wanted to use that opportunity to test out a novel transportation and delivery system while promoting healthier, locally sourced food, in association with our project partner. »

A pioneering venture

If the first two phases go well, the service will be expanded in the third phase to the entire EPFL community, and may include other products besides food. “Our campus is a genuine living lab, and we wanted to use that opportunity to test out a novel transportation and delivery system while promoting healthier, locally sourced food, in association with our project partner,” says Luca Fontana, who is managing the EPFL Sustainability office’s role in the initiative. Other research teams may join the venture (from EPFL or another research institution) to test out related technology such as for optimizing the van’s trajectory, enhancing the security of data transfer, analyzing images or promoting the acceptance of autonomous systems.

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