A small number of Americans will soon be able to have food and other goods delivered to them by an adorable semi-autonomous robot. Starship Technologies announced the first two commercial partnerships for its ground-based delivery robots in the US today — one with DoorDash in Redwood City, California, and one with Postmates in Washington, DC. The commercial trials will see these services start making deliveries in the coming weeks using Starship’s six-wheeled robots within a four-mile-wide test area in each city.
The DoorDash trial will take place in Redwood City’s downtown business district, and Starship will run its Postmates pilot in the northwestern part of Washington, DC’s city limits. (Starship Technologies marketing lead Henry Harris-Burland said the company can’t yet share the exact location.) DoorDash and Postmates customers will see the robots pop up as a delivery option in the respective apps, and it won’t cost any more than a typical delivery.
Starship Technologies’ robots have already driven thousands of miles in cities around the world, and the company even helped get legislation put in place to make the testing possible in Washington, DC. While these will be the company’s first two commercial trials in the US, Starship has already performed deliveries in the UK and Germany thanks to partnerships with services like Just Eat, Pronto, and Hermes. Other companies, like Amazon and Alphabet, have made a few airborne drone deliveries in the US thanks to early partnerships with businesses like 7-Eleven and Chipotle.
Once an order is placed and the robot delivery method selected, the customers will receive a notification when their delivery is on the way. The robots are capable of carrying up to 20 pounds of cargo, and their top speed of just four miles per hour means they typically stick to navigating sidewalks. Customers will be able to track the delivery on a map, and will receive a notification when it’s arrived. In all, the trips should take between 15–30 minutes.
When the robot arrives, customers will be texted a custom link that they have to tap in order to unlock (and open) the robot’s hatch. That’s just one of the safety measures Starship has built to ensure that the goods don’t get swiped in transit — others include the cameras, GPS, built-in alarms, and a two-way radio on each robot.
The Starship robots are lined with cameras and sensors that let them navigate autonomously as long as the company has already mapped out the delivery area. But early Postmates and DoorDash customers shouldn’t expect these trips to be fully autonomous. While Starship has been mapping these two cities (among others) for months now, they haven’t covered every street and sidewalk. Harris-Burland says these commercial trials will employ a mix of semi-autonomy and human control, with Starship employees remotely piloting the robots when needed.
The more the robots are used, though, the more Starship will be able to map the delivery areas, bringing the project closer to full autonomy. Eventually, Harris-Burland says the goal is to have thousands of delivery bots operating at “99 percent” autonomy with minimal human oversight.
Just last week the company got a big cash boost toward this goal in the form of a $17 million round of funding led by Daimler AG. But that still doesn’t mean robots are ready completely to replace your local delivery person. For one thing, Starship has only built about 70 bots so far for its tests around the globe.
Postmates is also looking at these delivery trials in a much more sober light, according to Holger Luedorf, Postmates’ senior vice president of business. “If robots are coming, and are going to be an option for part of our deliveries, then we think we should test these [now] and gain experience, and get data to kind of really say what this means for our business,” he tells The Verge.
Luedorf says the company was drawn to the temporary pilot program because it offers a chance to get feedback from its own customers and commercial partners about when, or even if, they want robotic deliveries. “This is really just a kind of first step in educating ourselves,” he said.