Driving through Philomath, Oregon, last month, Kristi Humphrey Ryder noticed a child-sized object stopped at an intersection. It seemed to be waiting for the light to change.
It wasn’t a person or an animal—or even living, for that matter—but it sure seemed aware of what it was up to.
“You have to go back around so we can see,” Kristi told her husband at the wheel. “It had crossed the street by that time and was on the other side of Highway 20 and had cut into a neighborhood. It was just sitting there next to a garbage can, and then it activated itself. It cocked its head and took off.”
Kristi learned “it” is a delivery robot named Dax, developed by Joseph Sullivan and his crew at Nova Dynamics LLC—a research and development company based in Philomath.
An entrepreneur of many years, Joseph says he has always had a passion for robots.
The idea for Dax came one day about six years ago as he was walking to work and realized sidewalks could be convenient for robot use.
The idea “just came out of nowhere,” Joseph says. “I was just thinking about the sidewalks. At that point, the idea of practical robots working outside still felt like 10 to 15 years in the future. I remember talking to one person about it. I said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to have robots delivering food.’ And he said, ‘You should try something simpler.’”
Joseph wasn’t deterred, but he was concerned how people might react to a robot. He also knew there were many ways to get it wrong—like building one that scared people or got in the way.
He and his team comprised largely of family members—including sister Miriam, brothers Kevin and Sean, and father Joe—could overcome technical difficulties, but changing people’s perception once set was another matter.
Joseph wanted to get it right the first time.
“We wanted Dax to be cute,” he says. “We wanted it to look and act like a friendly dog. If you are walking down the sidewalk and you see a strange dog, your first thought might be, ‘Is this dog a threat?’ If the dog looks at you, he has told you a bunch of things. He has seen you. He is not a threat. He’s using nonverbal cues that a lot of animals use to show you that everything is OK. Even though it is a robot and isn’t really a dog, if he could gesture by looking around, you’d be able to see what he is looking at, that he’s not spying on you.”
Engineers came up with Dax—a robot that can retract and tilt its head, turn both its head and body in the direction it is looking and/or listening, and change the expression in its eyes to communicate or blink to show it is responsive.
Its name was inspired by Dex’s diner in “Star Wars,” but also because it sounded like a name that could belong to a dog.
“The main idea behind making Dax ‘canimorphic’ is less that he looks like a dog and more that he interacts more like an animal, making him intuitive to interact with,” says Miriam, spokeswoman for the company.
Although nonverbal, Dax makes sounds that suggest the word “hello,” “I’m here” and “uh-oh.”
Its wheels feature hazard lights for use when crossing the street.
“To me, what has been funny is the way people interact with him,” Miriam says. “I’ll see Dax driving up to a business and the business owner will be, ‘Hey, Dax, come on in.’ It’s funny when they know the robot better than me.”
Today, three delivery robots motor around Philomath, with more in development. Each one is monitored with GPS and video while making deliveries.
Joseph believes they are the first step in an “infant” industry—an amenity not unlike many taken for granted these days.
“When you look at almost anything—cars, planes, computers—in the first year, people had uses for them, but they hadn’t really hit their niche, hadn’t really found their home,” Joseph says.
As a reminder, he keeps a poster featuring a computer sitting on a kitchen table. A person in the shot holds a recipe card.
“The idea being, maybe a computer can be used to hold recipes,” Joseph says. “Today, computers run the whole show. They had to find their niche.
“I feel the age of robotics is really just starting out. I see this growing into an industry. A whole lot of things people don’t enjoy or that are dangerous or hazardous can be dealt with by a robot.
“Picking up trash by the side of the road is a really great job for a robot. I think in the future we’ll be able to tell a robot, ‘Here’s a baseboard and here is how to clean it. Got it? I’ll be back in a couple of hours.’”