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Starship will test its autonomous delivery robot in Washington, DC this fall

Starship will test its autonomous delivery robot in Washington, DC this fall


The new capital (of ground-based drones)

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Starship autonomous delivery robot hands-on photos

Starship — the company behind the adorable, six-wheeled delivery robot we met this year at Mobile World Congress — has received approval from the Washington, DC Department of Transportation to start testing a delivery program as early as this September. The Estonia-based company worked with the local government to develop the Personal Delivery Device Pilot Act of 2016, which was included in the 2017 budget amendment bill that was passed last week.

The act defines "personal delivery devices," or PDDs, as "a device powered by an electric motor, for use primarily on sidewalks, capable of: transporting items with or without an operator directly controlling the device; identifying and yielding to pedestrians, bicyclists, other lawful users of public space, and property; and navigating public thoroughfares; and interpreting traffic signals and signs at crosswalks."

Starship’s delivery robot, obviously, fits that description. It’s electric, has a trunk that can fit about 20 pounds of cargo, and has a suite of cameras around the outside that can be used to identify obstacles and help guide the robot to its destination. The company will be allowed to test up to five of the robots, and tests can begin as soon as September 15th and are allowed to run until December 31st of 2017, according to the act.

Allan Martinson, Starship's chief operating officer, tells The Verge that while the PDD Pilot Act is a big step forward, the company still needs to figure out a number of things before its robots hit the sidewalks of DC. For one, it’s not exactly sure where it will run the tests. The PDD Pilot Act forbids Starship (and any other company) from operating its robots anywhere in the city’s Central Business District (as defined by the DOT), but everywhere else in the District of Columbia is fair game.

"We haven’t yet decided which part we want to test in. We need to factor in things like commercial partners, sidewalk quality, the number of street lights," Martinson says. "At the moment we have several candidates, but it is far too early."

Martinson also declined to name which commercial partners will be part of Starship’s pilot program, but said they deal with package delivery, food delivery, and online grocery shopping.

This isn’t the first major test that Starship has conducted. The company has been testing its robots at the University of Arkansas since April, made a few deliveries in London, and has spent months working out the basics in Starship’s home country, Estonia. The company has built 25 of the robots so far, though they’ve only driven about 300 miles autonomously, Martinson says. Starship aims to have several parallel pilot programs up and running by the end of this year, but DC is the first place the company has gained regulatory approval.

Of course, working this all into legislation means that other companies will be able to take advantage of the regulatory framework, too. The bill states that companies that wish to apply need to prove that their delivery devices are "safe to operate on sidewalks, crosswalks, and public thoroughfares." The robots will need to be able to recognize things like cars, bikes, pedestrians, and road signs and street lights, because the act establishes that they must be capable of yielding the right-of-way to "all vehicles approaching on a roadway upon entering a crosswalk" unless the correct pedestrian signal is being displayed.

In addition, all robots will be restricted to a top speed of 10 miles per hour and a gross weight of 50 pounds (excluding cargo). The robots must be able to automatically alert their operators if it encounters either a technology failure or loss of communication occurs, according to the act. When this happens, it’s the operator’s responsibility to either to assume direct control of the PDD, or command it to pull off the sidewalk, where the company has 24 hours to remove the robot.

Companies will also have to submit a proposal to the District Department of Transportation detailing where they want to test their robots, and pay a nonrefundable fee of $250. If accepted, participants in the pilot program will be allowed to test up to five PDDs for a year, or until the end of the program on December 31st, 2017.