Fleets of self-driving robots capable of delivering groceries or restaurant meals are now being tested in the U.S., with the promise of conquering the challenge of the “last mile.”
Starship Technologies, an Estonian technology company established in 2014 by the co-founders of Skype, have developed the robots — which resemble six-wheeled buggies — to deliver food, packages and goods to consumers within a short radius of their point of origin. The units are now deployed in several European countries including the restaurant delivery service Just Eat in the U.K., while tests in Washington, D.C. are now underway, Henry Harris-Burland, Starship’s marketing and communications manager, said in an interview this week.
Harris-Burland said Starship is testing the service in partnership with various food and parcel delivery businesses but declined to identify them before formal agreements were signed. He said he expected those announcements could come within weeks.
Why robots? They’re cost efficient, particularly for the kinds of small deliveries food retailers often find the most expensive, Harris-Burland said. According to the company, the technology could cut costs to pennies per delivery and allow for the delivery of a packet of light bulbs or a single bottle of wine to be profitable.
Here’s how it works: Customers make orders through a website or mobile app, and a robot is dispatched to deliver in as soon as 15 minutes. Because their delivery radius is so small, Starship is experimenting with sending a van filled with robots to a central neighborhood point and dispatching the fleet to a neighborhood at once.
The robots travel about four miles per hour. They navigate with the help of GPS, cameras, sensors and proprietary maps and can self-navigate obstacles. A remote human operator can take over when needed. When the robot arrives at its destination, the customer can release its contents with an app code and send it back.
The units have a payload capacity of about 20 pounds, which would preclude a large weekly grocery shop, Harris-Burland acknowledged.
Video credit: Satellite75 & Don Shades Productions for Just Eat
“You could conceivably have a row of five robots carrying a large order, but that’s not what this has been designed for,” he said. “We’re looking at the on-demand market, which is the way we’ve found people want to shop today. They’re buying food almost everyday.”
Rolling out the service will likely take time. Many cities require special permits for unmanned vehicles; Washington approved ground-based drones earlier this year with some restrictions. The Starship test, which began in Washington earlier this month, could last through December of 2017. Harris-Burland said Starship was also seeking a West Coast city for expansion. It was granted a temporary test site in San Francisco this month.