From this month, pedestrians in the United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland will begin sharing their sidewalks with robot couriers. The self-driving delivery droids are being rolled out as part of a pilot by Starship Technologies, working with a number of major industry partners.
Starship Technologies was set up in 2014 by Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, with the aim of revolutionizing local deliveries. The robots are designed for delivering packages, groceries and food to consumers in a 2-3-mi (3-5-km) radius and travel at a "brisk walking speed" of 4 mph (6 km/h) on average, but can travel at up to 10 mph (16 km/h).
They are built with off-the-shelf components, such as an Nvidia Tegra K1 processor, to keep the costs down. They also make use of a number of conventional cameras, a 360-degree camera, infrared and ultrasonic sensors to navigate autonomously, but are monitored by human operators in control centers who can take control at any time if required.
Starship has been testing the robots in 12 countries for nine months. Around 5,000 mi (8,000 km) are said to have been covered and over 400,000 people encountered without any accidents.
The pilot, however, will provide the first opportunity to test the robots for real deliveries and to introduce them to the general public. It will also allow Starship to better understand and design a robotic delivery service.
The partners for the pilot are food delivery companies Just Eat and Pronto.co.uk, German courier Hermes and German retailer Metro Group. Starship tells Gizmag that each partnership will work slightly differently, but that robot operation, maintenance and the provision of any human operation that is required will be handled in-house. It expects to hand over more responsibility to the partners as they learn more about the technology.
When a customer in one of the served pilot areas orders something from one of the partners online or via an app, they will be offered Starship delivery as an option. They will then be alerted via their mobile phone when their package is ready for delivery and they will be able to choose a time for the robot to make the delivery.
The robot will take between 15-30 minutes to arrive and, once it has arrived, the customer will be sent a unique PIN code with which to access the lid of the robot and take their goods. The robot will then return to its base.
Starship says the combination of PIN-only access and remote tracking makes the robot delivery system both safe and secure. There are also nine cameras in total that can capture the actions of any potential aggressors. In addition, they feature two-way audio so that operators in the control room can speak with people who might approach the robots. Location tracking is said to be to the nearest inch, so they could be easily found if stolen.
The robots are electric and have four motors that drive six wheels, with power coming from lithium batteries that last for about three hours. Starship Technologies says it could easily increase the battery capacity by a factor of 10, but that the robots are currently being transported a lot by plane and they can't fly on a plane with a battery any larger.
The program will see "dozens" of the robots deployed in London, Düsseldorf, Bern and one other German city to begin with. Several other European cities will then be added, as well as the first American cities. Starship says it will also continue testing its technology at its R&D facilities in Tallinn, Estonia.
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