European startup Starship Technologies thinks the answer to delivering groceries isn't drones, it's rovers. The company unveiled a self-driving, six-wheel robot today that it claims will reduce the price of home deliveries to almost nothing. Prototypes of the bot are currently being tested, and the plans to introduce pilot services in the US and UK in 2016. Each robot carries around 9 kilograms of shopping and is intended to take care of the final step of any delivery, making trips of no longer than 30 minutes from local hubs to customers' doorsteps.
Customers unlock the robots using their smartphone
"The last few miles often amounts to the majority of the total delivery cost," claims CEO Ahti Heinla in a press release. "Our robots are purposely designed using the technologies made affordable by mobile phones and tablets — it’s fit for purpose, and allows for the cost savings to be passed on to the customer." Using a mobile app, customers can order a delivery at a time that suits them, track the robot's process, and unlock its interior compartment when it arrives on their doorstep.
However, there are a few obvious difficulties. For a start, there's the issue of legality. Starship Technologies says it has authorized a trial of the robot in London's Greenwich area, but it might be difficult to get similar approval in different areas of different cities. London's Metropolitan police recently reminded residents that self-balancing scooters (better known as hoverboards) are illegal to ride on the city's roads and pavements, and it's possible they'd have issues with the robots as well. There's also the cost factor. Starship claims that the robots are cheap to produce and "consume less energy than most light bulbs," but these are far from precise numbers, and it's impossible to say whether the technology would be more cost effective than trucks at scale.
The robots move at a brisk walking pace
Locals might be a bit put out by self-driving bots clogging up their pavements, and there's always possibility of crime. The grocery rovers travel at speeds no faster than a brisk walking pace (4 mph), making them an easy target for burglars or just bored teenagers who fancy kicking a robot around. The bots' only defense in scenario is a speaker and camera overseen by a human operator.
As Heinla told BBC News: "If someone tries to steal something [from the robot,] the operator can actually yell: 'The police are coming in five minutes. We know your location and you are being filmed as well.'" However, that's probably not enough to stop a determined thief. After all, we all remember what happened to hitchBOT, the would-be robot hitchhiker (hint: he was decapitated, perhaps as part of a viral video).