Starship Technologies — the maker of these adorable six-wheeled delivery robots — is partnering with services across Europe for a new set of real-life trials. The company's bots will be put to work in London and three other European cities, making deliveries for takeaway services Just Eat and Pronto, as well as package courier Hermes and retailer Metro Group. Details of the new pilot schemes are thin, but Starship says they'll involve "dozens of robots" with the intention of developing "know-how on running real robotic delivery services." Separate tests slated for Washington DC were also announced last week.
the bots will be operated by humans for these trials
The robots themselves are pretty simple: they've got six wheels, a bunch of cameras and sensors, and a central trunk capable of holding up to two bags of shopping. They're intended to operate autonomously using similar technology to that which powers self-driving cars, but in these initial European trials, they'll be piloted remotely, according to a report from Quartz. Humans will steer the robots as they build up maps and routes of their chosen areas, with the intention of shifting more driving duties onto the computer. The bots have cameras and loudspeakers to guard against theft, and customers receiving a delivery will be texted a PIN code to unlock the trunk and grab their order.
Starship's goal is to solve the "last-mile" problem of delivery. While warehouse, trucks, and delivery vans are fine for the distribution of goods over long distances, these systems are inefficient when dealing with short distances. Starship — which was created by Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis — says that in central London it costs up to £12 ($15) to have a package delivered on-demand. Using their six-wheeled bots, they want to bring this price down to £1.
The bots move at a speed of around 4 mph, and are intended to travel within a two to three mile radius of their starting point. So far, they've clocked up nearly 5,000 miles during testing. Pilots will begin in London, Düsseldorf, Bern, and another as-yet unnamed German city, before moving to "several other European and American cities," says Starship.
Speaking to Quartz, James Roy Poulter, a co-founder of takeaway service Pronto, said he imagined creating kitchens with special "cat flaps" for the bots to enter and leave by. "We want hundreds of these now and thousands next year," Poulter told the publication.
But despite these ambitious claims, Starship's robots have yet to prove they can work at scale. Leaving aside basic problems like avoiding theft (will a loudspeakers really be enough?) and crossing roads safely (does the robot have to wait for a human to press the pedestrian crossing button?), there's the difficulty in creating autonomous systems that can navigate busy streets without becoming a danger or a nuisance to humans. And even if these difficulties can be overcome, Starship's business model depends on scale to bring down costs. The robots might be perfect, but if they're not widely adopted they'll never be cost effective. Starship has a lot to prove before it can really deliver.