March 22, 2016

Self-driving parcel-delivery robots to begin U.S. trials in April

Starship Technologies now testing 40-pound vehicles in London.

By Ben Ames

Starship Technologies, a British robotics startup launched by two founders of the online videoconference network Skype, has announced plans to begin U.S. trials of its fleet of single-package, self-driving delivery vehicles by April.

The company has not yet released the sites of those tests or the names of organizations involved, but is launching initial tests now in the U.K., a company spokesman said.

Following its initial test in the Greenwich neighborhood of London, Starship plans to expand its trial sites to additional cities in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and launch pilot delivery service later in 2016.

The service is intended to replace last-mile, urban delivery vans with fleets of small robots. Each battery-powered vehicle can carry a small parcel or grocery bag within a three-mile radius of Starship's parcel hubs, the company says.

By allowing parcel carriers to drop all their packages at a single drop-off point instead of visiting every address, the system would save money compared to conventional delivery routes, the company says. The robot fleets could provide home delivery for less than $1.44 per shipment, about one-tenth the cost of using human drivers, Starship says.

That economic argument could help the self-driving robots spread quickly to Starship hubs and grocery stores located in densely populated cities, Starship CEO and CTO Ahti Heinla said in a statement.

Along with Starship partner Janus Friis, Heinla was on the team that founded Skype in Sweden in 2003. Skype's technology allowed users to bypass traditional telephone lines or cell phone networks for a voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) connection. eBay Inc. acquired the company in 2005 and later sold it to Microsoft Corp.

Just as Skype provided an alternative to standard telephone calls, Starship hopes to provide a new way to deliver packages.

Starship robots look like six-wheeled picnic coolers loaded with sensors and a tall antenna. They travel on pedestrian sidewalks, using their sensors to navigate, cross streets, and avoid collisions, the company says. Human controllers track the 40-pound robots throughout the trip and can seize control from a machine at any time.

Consumers awaiting deliveries can track their parcels through a smartphone app as the robot travels to them, then unlock the robot when it arrives by entering a secure code on their phones.

Despite their impressive design, the robots have some restrictions. Although they are designed for grocery delivery, the vehicles do not yet have refrigeration capability, the company spokeswoman said.

They are also restricted in the number of stops they can make, so each trip runs only between the distribution center and a single drop-off point. However, the robot can perform reverse logistics, so it does not have to return to its hub empty-handed, the spokeswoman said.

Finally, the delivery-robot model does not yet have a marketing name. Visitors to the Starship Technologies website are invited to enter suggestions.

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

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