Autonomous delivery bots will soon stroll D.C. streets

The pilot delivery program is slated to begin sometime in the next 4-6 weeks.

Starship delivery robot

A test run of Starship Technologies' delivery robot on the streets of San Francisco on September 27, 2016. 

Credit: Martyn Williams

Some Washington, D.C., residents may soon be sharing the streets with Starship Technologies' delivery robots.

Back in June, Washington became the first U.S. city to approve a pilot program of the ground-based delivery robots. Among some restrictions, the D.C. Council bill specifies that PPDs, or personal delivery devices, must not operate above 10 miles per hour, must weigh less than 50 pounds without cargo, and must obey all traffic and pedestrian signs and signals. 

Starship Technologies' bot is equipped to follow all of these guidelines. It weighs around 40 pounds and is capable of carrying about three filled shopping bags while rolling along at a safe speed of four miles per hour. It's also equipped with nine cameras and a number of sensors to help it avoid obstacles and allow remote operators to keep an eye on it. 

Right now, most of the company's robots are under the constant supervision of an operator and a walking escort, but Starship Technologies hopes that its delivery robots will eventually be 99 percent autonomous.

Starship Technologies is the brainchild of Skype cofounders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, who wanted to bridge the last gap of "on-demand" deliveries by targeting the most inefficient delivery areas: residential neighborhoods. The company says its robots will be able to deliver goods within a one- to three-mile radius in 15 to 30 minutes.

Through an app, consumers will be able to order a delivery robot and choose the exact time they want their parcels delivered, for the cost of US$1. Other companies are also developing autonomous delivery robots, but Starship Technologies says it's not worried about the competition -- especially the one coming from the air.

"It takes a lot more energy to lift something off the ground than to just roll it across the ground at 4 miles per hour, and that affects the economics," says marketing manager Henry Harris-Burland. "Consumers don’t want to pay more for drone delivery, they may want to do it the first time, but then it’s gonna get old very quickly," 

Starship Technologies delivery robot Martyn Williams

A test run of Starship Technologies' delivery robot on the streets of San Francisco on September 27, 2016.

Of course, unlike aerial drones, ground-based robots have a greater chance of being vandalized and stolen. To discourage this, the team has equipped the bots with alarms, GPS tracking, a lockable lid, and a two-way speaker system. Starship Technologies has already experimented with real deliveries in the U.K., Switzerland, and Germany, and so far, they haven't had any instances of theft. It remains to be seen if U.S. residents will be as courteous. 

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