Skype co-founders want autonomous robots to deliver parcels

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The Starship robots are designed to operate on pedestrian pavements

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Amazon may be taking to the skies for robotic deliveries, but former Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis are taking to the pavements. Their new startup, Starship Technologies, hopes to change the way local goods are delivered by introducing fleets of self-driving delivery robots that will short circuit the last mile.

During the dot-com boom of the 1990s, there were many startup websites that planned to revolutionize the world by delivering everything straight to your door ... only to go bust because they forgot to buy a van. The infamous last mile is the most inefficient part of deliveries, especially in dense urban areas, and failing to address those costs killed many fledging companies. Twenty years later, a new startup is trying again, but with robots instead of vans.

Employing 30 people and with offices in London and Tallinn, Estonia, Starship Technologies is developing a six-wheeled plastic robot that it says is cheaper, faster, and more environmentally friendly while providing new opportunities for business when it comes to making local deliveries.

Each of the robots is lightweight, made from off-the-shelf parts, and is equipped with sensors that allows them to move along with normal pedestrian traffic at about 4 mph (6.4 km/h) on regular pavements. Operating autonomously 99 percent of the time, each robot uses collision avoidance and navigation software backed up by remote human supervision for safety, and can carry the equivalent of two grocery bags in a locked compartment that can only be opened by the recipient.

Instead of traditional door-to-door deliveries, goods are shipped in bulk to a local hub and then distributed directly by the robot. As they move about, they can be tracked by the operators and customers in real time using an app. According to Starship, this allows the robots to make local deliveries in 5 to 30 minutes at 10 to 15 times less than the cost of conventional methods. The company hopes that this will not only make deliveries faster and cheaper, but will promote innovations, such as point-to-point delivery of goods or rental-and-return services.

The robots are currently undergoing prototype testing with pilot services scheduled to begin in the US, Britain, and other countries sometime next year.

"With ecommerce continuing to grow consumers expect to have more convenient options for delivery – but at a cost that suits them," says Heinla. "The last few miles often amounts to the majority of the total delivery cost. 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."

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