In the near future, if you need a few things from Amazon, or perhaps you forgot to pick up the dry cleaning, there’s a chance a small robot will deliver your goods right to your front door.
No, this won’t be a drone dropping something from the skies. A six-wheeled robot from Starship Technologies, run by the founders of Skype, will soon be making deliveries without those complicated autonomous drone systems touted by Amazon and Google. Starship’s little robots are already making deliveries in London, and they will likely be rolling around US streets soon.
Lauri Väin, Starship’s engineering lead, said during last week’s RoboUniverse conference in New York City, that the company has 10 prototype robots, and plans to have 100 by the end of the year, and over 1,000 next year. The Washington Post reported last month that Starship plans to bring its test program to Washington, DC soon. Väin said the little robots, which look like a rolling ice chests, can handle most curbs and cobbles that they might encounter on the streets of metropolitan areas. His robot followed him along quite nicely on the walk from his Midtown hotel to the convention center, multiple blocks away.
The robots can hold about two shopping bags’ worth of cargo—enough for any missing essentials, or the sorts of things Amazon hopes to ship through the air—and can travel for 2 to 3 hours on a single charge. They use similar technology to Google’s self-driving research cars, and are in constant contact with a human dispatcher who can take over if needed. The robots weigh about 40 lbs., and their cargo bays are can be opened only by the person waiting on the delivery. If someone tries to steal from the bots, they call the police for help and film the incident. (Hopefully, they won’t have to tangle with road rage in Philadelphia.)
Väin said Starship’s robots have driven over 2,000 miles on public sidewalks around the world, and cost a few thousand dollars each to build. “The reception has been very good,” he said, adding that the vast majority of people are either positive or ambivalent about the robots as they putter along. At the conference, barely anyone turned their heads as Väin strolled down the corridors with the robot at his side. To be fair, it was a robotics conference, and therefore not full of your average denizens of a New York City sidewalk.