Self-driving robots will soon be running your delivery errands in the US

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In the near future, if you need a few things from Amazon, or perhaps you forgot to pick up the dry cleaning, there’s a chance a small robot will deliver your goods right to your front door.

No, this won’t be a drone dropping something from the skies. A six-wheeled robot from Starship Technologies, run by the founders of Skype, will soon be making deliveries without those complicated autonomous drone systems touted by Amazon and Google. Starship’s little robots are already making deliveries in London, and they will likely be rolling around US streets soon.

Lauri Väin, Starship’s engineering lead, said during last week’s RoboUniverse conference in New York City, that the company has 10 prototype robots, and plans to have 100 by the end of the year, and over 1,000 next year. The Washington Post reported last month that Starship plans to bring its test program to Washington, DC soon. Väin said the little robots, which look like a rolling ice chests, can handle most curbs and cobbles that they might encounter on the streets of metropolitan areas. His robot followed him along quite nicely on the walk from his Midtown hotel to the convention center, multiple blocks away.

The robots can hold about two shopping bags’ worth of cargo—enough for any missing essentials, or the sorts of things Amazon hopes to ship through the air—and can travel for  2 to 3 hours on a single charge. They use similar technology to Google’s self-driving research cars, and are in constant contact with a human dispatcher who can take over if needed. The robots weigh about 40 lbs., and their cargo bays are can be opened only by the person waiting on the delivery. If someone tries to steal from the bots, they call the police for help and film the incident. (Hopefully, they won’t have to tangle with road rage in Philadelphia.)

Väin said Starship’s robots have driven over 2,000 miles on public sidewalks around the world, and cost a few thousand dollars each to build. “The reception has been very good,” he said, adding that the vast majority of people are either positive or ambivalent about the robots as they putter along. At the conference, barely anyone turned their heads as Väin strolled down the corridors with the robot at his side. To be fair, it was a robotics conference, and therefore not full of your average denizens of a New York City sidewalk.

“What’s all this, then?”
“What’s all this, then?”
Image: Starship

Starship’s chief operating officer, Allan Martinson, said in email that the company is working with the McMillon Innovation Studio at University of Arkansas to test its robots in the US. First, researchers will drive the robots around to “gauge social acceptance,” Martinson said, and then the next tests will trial deliveries, followed by a full-service trial rollout.

“The program will most likely continue in DC in late May or June, followed by some other states and cities,” Martinson said. As well as DC, the robots have been driven on the streets of New York, San Fransisco, Atlanta, Boston, and Bentonville, Arkansas. That happens to be the headquarters of Walmart—and CEO Doug McMillon donated his name and money create the lab that Starship is working with—but Martinson wouldn’t say whether the retail giant was working directly with the robotics company. (Update: A spokesperson for Walmart told Quartz that the company is not involved with Starship’s tests in Arkansas.)

Walmart is also studying drones for customer delivery. Most of Walmart’s existing stores are in smaller cities and the suburbs, which may be more feasible for drones, given those places don’t have lots of sidewalks for robots or tall buildings that would impede drones. Still, the US Federal Aviation Administration is unlikely to rule on whether commercial drone delivery operations can take place before Starship’s technology is ready. The ground-based robots could add to Walmart’s delivery options. “We like rolling robots, because you can send heavy things,” Väin said. “This, we feel, is something that’s practical today.”

The robots could also make deliveries for small businesses that can’t afford people. Väin said that Starship may rent out the robots’ capabilities: The same way Uber gets delivery orders, businesses could request a robot to pick up an order and deliver it to a customer. Starship has previously said that it wants to keep delivery costs on the robot to less than $2 per delivery.

Väin added that he wants the robots—which can keep up with a person walking—to arrive at your door in about 12 to 15 minutes, meaning perhaps Domino’s (which is working on similar robots) may once again be able to deliver pizza in 30 minutes or less. You won’t have to schedule a delivery time; Starship’s robots will be able to deliver as needed, whether during working hours or not.

Väin said he believes there’s like to be many sorts of robot delivery services, flying and grounded and they each will “carve out their own niche.” Such automated delivery may enable e-commerce for products people so far have resisted buying online, particularly impulse buys.

It could also help the sharing economy, Väin said, enabling people to share, say, tools, more easily. Indeed, Uber is already investing heavily in robotics and self-driving cars.

Perhaps we’ll start to see fewer gas-powered delivery trucks, and a greater number of electric delivery bots, in the near future. We’ll be able to get whatever we want in life, without moving, while also cutting down on carbon emissions. It’s a brave new world.