These new six-wheeled robots that you’re about to see everywhere almost look like little cute tubs. Their mission is to deliver food and items throughout London and said mission is set to begin soon. They’re also scheduled to work in Bern, Düsseldorf, one other yet to be named city in Germany, and test runs through Washington D.C. are on their calendars. To start, the little tubs are partnering with Pronto and Just Eat, delivering takeaway food. They’re also set to deliver packages for Metro Group and Hermes. Their maker, Starship Technologies, has plans for dozens of the tubs to run real life trials, developing exactly what the company needs to know to operate robotic services in the delivery industry.
The chubby tubs can hold two shopping bags of delivery items. Their sensors and cameras are intended to let them function on their own, but for the initial trials in the UK and Europe, humans will pilot them remotely. This first leg of their mission will entail developing maps and routes for them. As their information is set, their duties will increase, as their human pilots gradually shift more responsibility to their computers. Protecting the robot tubs against theft are loudspeakers and cameras. Their customers will use a PIN code upon delivery to unlock the trunk and retrieve what’s been ordered. A simple text message will deliver the code.
One of the biggest motivators for the tubs’ mission is price. In central London, for example, delivery prices average £12 (about $15) for each on-demand package. The cute little robot tubs are expected to reduce this price significantly to as low as perhaps £1. The robots move fairly rapidly for their size, averaging about 4 miles per hour. They can travel in a radius of somewhere between two and three miles from their beginning point.
During their testing period, they have logged almost 5,000 miles. Their capabilities have prompted visionary changes in the companies they plan to serve. The co-founder of Pronto delivery service, James Roy Poulter, mentioned in an interview that Pronto could theoretically develop their kitchens with “cat flaps” customized for the robots to move in and out on their scheduled rounds. The company, hopeful for success, has desires for hundreds of the cute tubs currently, and thousands for the coming year.
There are a few human concerns to work out for the efficient tubs however. Crossing all sorts of streets safely is one. Being certain that their theft avoidance measures are enough is next. Though the robot tubs can be programmed for efficiency, their ability to function in the random city bustle of traffic and human activity remains to be seen. There are many unknown factors out in the big world, and Starship Technologies will need to find solutions to the unexpected before their robots can be kept out of harm’s way and be certain to avoid causing problems all on their own.
Right now, the cameras included in the Starship tubs can detect pedestrians in their way. When a human is stopped in their way, the Starship tubs will stop to not run over people, and in some cases they can move out of the way. They already have some collision avoidance technology included, but may need more. The other key ingredient in the business mix includes the company’s ability to convince businesses to adopt their robot fleet. The functional tubs must be adopted in significant numbers to be more cost effective than current delivery services so that businesses will be willing to take them on.
The Starships, as they are named, were developed by the co- founders of Skype, Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla. They are colorful, with bright yellow pinstripes on their exterior top edge and around their wheels. Their front and side cameras are hidden inside their black and white exterior. Brightly colored lights blink in orange and green along their visor sides. Their storage bellies are brightly colored in yellow.
Starships already have competitors in development. Amazon has been testing delivery drones and Google already has a patent on self-driving delivery trucks. All of these companies must find ways to conform to and overcome current legal regulations. The Starships can carry about twenty pounds, which exceeds its competitors current weight capacities. The Starships seem safer for local deliveries and more sturdy than the others as well.
The Starships move at an average walking speed, and when they are fully loaded, their weight is less an 20kg. They are not likely to harm a human. They are also good at navigating over bumps and curbs, and some stairways are no problem, either. Each robot tub includes obstacle avoidance software and integrated navigation systems, so that it will eventually be able to go about its work on its own. For now, each tub is overseen by humans who operate to solve the unexpected, keeping the robot tubs working safely along their routes.
Plans for more than 20,000 miles of test drives are underway. The company hopes that solving the various issues involved with efficient short distance deliveries will be overcome, and that the cute Starships will revolutionize the delivery industry in a positive and world-changing way. Starship Technologies currently has offices in Tallinn, Estonia and in London. These locations provide easy access for networking throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. The company goal of introducing fleets of their Starship tubs to safely, quietly and efficiently deliver goods may offer savings on costs and convenience that surpasses traditional human delivery services.
Last-mile deliveries have always required precise logistics, and companies have worked consistently to ensure that products are safely delivered on time to their customers. One advantage that Starship robots offer will help customers to more accurately pinpoint when their products will arrive. The robots will deliver at a time which suits customers. Customers will be able to select precise delivery slots. These short time ranges fit into busy schedules more easily. Customers can use a phone app to track their robot’s real time location and arrival time. Once the robot has arrived at its delivery location, the only person who will be able to unlock its delivery will be the person who has the PIN code.
Some of the challenges which Starship Technologies must hurdle include helping their robots to follow traffic signals perfectly, to use pedestrian crossings at the correct time, to use sidewalks instead of roaming on the city streets, and to react to emergency vehicle sirens. Their most difficult task will be to interact with the unpredictability inherent in human movement. They’ll need to react properly when cyclists or skateboarders unexpectedly take over sidewalks, and stop and wait for human instructions if circumstances require it.
But their future seems bright. Other robots are already delivering items in hotels, warehouses and hospitals. The technology used is similar, though Starship robots have more external challenges than other robots that work indoors. It may not be long before many people are surprised to see a Starship robot at their door, delivering their order, rather than a human. The Starship robots stand in line to take over many part time jobs now served by many kinds of workers.
Some wonder if this bodes well for humans, while others suggest that human delivery workers could be trained to help supervise the routes the Starship robots take over. Though solutions to this problem are as far in the future as the actual implementing of the robots themselves, it may be prudent for Starship Technologies, and the companies they serve, to add job retraining to their production schedule, finding meaningful employment for the delivery workers whose jobs may eventually be replaced by the robots. The social implications are as undefined as the actual future of the emerging robot industry.