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Skype Founders Launch Self-Driving Delivery Robots

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Semi-autonomous robot can deliver 20-pound payload.

Starship Technologies’ delivery robot

Move over, pedestrians! Eventually, you might find yourselves sharing the sidewalks with self-driving robots delivering goods. Starship Technologies, a European technology company started  by two of Skype’s founders, Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, have introduced their self-driving delivery robot, which moves at “a whopping 4 mph,” Matt McFarland wrote Nov. 1 in The Washington Post.

Neighborhood Delivery

The robot is being marketed as a delivery assistant for neighborhood restaurants and retail stores, and parcel delivery businesses. The goal is for the robot to deliver up to 20 pounds of goods to locals within 5 to 30 minutes, Aaron Souppouris wrote in Engadget. Starship believes the robot would cut down on delivery costs because there is “almost no human involvement.”

The only time a human would be needed to assist would be 1% of the time if there are difficult situations, McFarland said. The slow speed and grounded approach also removes some of the safety concerns with drone delivery.”

Street Safety

Starship CEO Heinla said the robot’s sensors allow it to recognize approaching vehicles from 100-200 meters (about 328-656 feet), and that it would not cross a street unless its sensors determine “great visibility” to avoid accidents.

For anyone worried that thieves might try to steal the goods the bots are delivering, the cargo bay is locked during delivery and can only be opened by the mobile phone of the person who ordered the goods. Souppouris said he assumes that would done through a mobile app, because the person placing an order will be able to track the delivery as the robot moves along. Starship claims the customer can choose when he or she would like the delivery to be made, from a “selection of short, precise delivery slots.”

Starship has equipped the robot with speakers for a distant operator to use, to make sure no one interferes with the delivery. Heinla told the BBC:

If somebody bothers the robot the operator can actually shout — ‘Hey, what are you doing?’  If somebody tries to steal something the operator can actually yell ‘The police are coming in five minutes! We know your location, you’re being filmed as well.’

Other Sizes Possible

The robot is currently 21 inches long, 21 inches wide, and 22 inches high, however Starship may make models in other sizes. And the company may also make ones with thermal insulation that can keep foods like pizza hot.

A large city would need several Starship hubs, because each one could service only a few miles, Heinla told Engadget. He said, “Our vision revolves around three zeros: zero cost, zero waiting time, and zero environmental impact.” Because the robots are electrically powered, they are “only technically as environmentally friendly as the power grid they charge from.” However, he added that they are “undoubtedly more friendly than traditional delivery vans and bikes.” Starship says the robots consume less energy than most light bulbs.

Starship’s plan is to sell the robot as a delivery service, McFarland wrote. Businesses would have the option of paying the company per delivery, or “they could buy the platform and pay for the operators and maintenance.” A prototype has been tested for more than 80 miles in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and London. Starship will be doing a pilot study early next year in Greenwich, London.


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