Robots Could Fulfill Online Orders in Minutes

Want lunch from a nearby restaurant or to have a prescription delivered? Starship is on its way

13 July 2016

Pedestrians in several small cities and suburban towns could find themselves sharing the sidewalk with Starship, a self-driving vehicle that’s about knee-high. The little robot would be delivering online orders such as groceries or a book. Starship can carry up to 12 kilograms of goods within a 5-kilometer radius. So far, the robotic vehicles have been tested in 40 localities in a dozen countries. They are scheduled to be in operation by the end of the year, with several commercial partners.

Supermarkets, liquor stores, pharmacies, and restaurants are among the businesses expected to take advantage of Starship’s services.  The idea is to eliminate the need for delivery vehicles and their drivers, and by offering fast, reliable service, the businesses could also increase sales.

Orders could be made via Starship’s mobile app, which will have the customer’s name and address. After the order is placed in the robot’s secure compartment, off it goes. Deliveries are guaranteed to arrive in 30 minutes or less, depending on the customer’s location. And, through the Starship app, a customer can track the robot’s progress.

“It’s like having a personal courier service,” says Ahti Heinla, CEO of Starship Technologies, and one of the cofounders of Skype. The Starship prototype was described in February at Mobile World Congress, in Barcelona.

HIT THE ROAD

Starship looks like an ice cooler on wheels—three wheels on each side—topped off by an antenna. At 55 centimeters tall, 66 cm long, and 53 cm wide, it’s large enough for two bags of groceries to fit in its compartment. The robot weighs about 18 kg and moves at the speed of a pedestrian—up to 6.5 kilometers per hour.

The vehicle navigates the streets by relying on a built-in 3-D map of the neighborhood, computer-vision software, and GPS. Starship is equipped with nine video cameras. These not only help it “see” its surroundings, but also to capture new obstacles that might crop up along its route to avoid, say, construction zones or potholes. This constantly updated virtual map is shared among the fleet of Starship vehicles in the area. Heinla calls it “robot crowdsourcing.”

Computer-vision software allows Starship to compare its internal map to what it sees through the cameras, enabling it to stay on course without veering off the prescribed path more than an inch. It also scans for obstacles like pedestrians, baby strollers, and cars, and can maneuver out of their way as they approach. During testing, the vehicle stops at the edge of the sidewalk before crossing a road. A human operator from the company then remotely helps it cross the road safely. Eventually, the company says, the robot will recognize approaching cars up to 200 meters away and will cross on its own when it determines the road is clear.

Starship’s six wheels help it stay balanced on bumpy roads and sidewalks, and allow it to climb curbs. A stereo-vision camera—which extracts information from its digital images—and accelerometers help the vehicle identify rough road conditions so it can try to avoid the same route the next time. Starship is also equipped with LEDs to illuminate its path.

Starship’s storage compartment, locked after its load is installed, can be opened only by the customer, who is notified through the mobile app when the delivery has arrived. Through the app the customer unlocks the compartment with a numeric code.

Heinla is not concerned about theft. “As with the trunk of a car, people can’t see what’s inside the compartment,” he notes, “and half the time it’s empty, because Starship is returning from making a delivery. The incentive is just not there to break in.” What’s more, an alarm goes off if anyone should pick up the robot and try to carry it off. And the robots are connected to the Internet, so Starship Technologies can track their location.

BETTER THAN DRONES

Amazon, unlike Starship Technologies, plans to use aerial drones for its deliveries. But Heinla says these have a long way to go before people trust the technology, which, he says people feel is dangerous and an invasion of privacy. “Drones flying over people’s backyards as their children play outside is not a future many look forward to,” he says.

During Starship testing this year, customers and pedestrians found the robots to be “cute and friendly,” Heinla says, adding that some pedestrians didn’t even notice them as they passed.

Heinla foresees Starship as a service in which the business—not the customer—absorbs the delivery cost. Stores won’t purchase or rent a robot, he figures; they’ll simply pay his company for each delivery. Heinla puts this price tag at no more than US $1. The actual figure would depend on the weight of merchandise carried and the distance the vehicle travels. He sees this as adding to the bottom line of participating businesses because the robots eliminate the cost of drivers and delivery vehicles. And the fast delivery time and convenience for customers means they’re likely to place more orders, Heinla says.

“We’re not a robotics company per se,” he says. “We’re a neighborhood-delivery service, making shipments affordable, simple, and fast.”

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