Former Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis have announced the launch of a new company, Starship Technologies, which plans to introduce fleets of small, earthbound delivery robots for use by parcel delivery firms or local grocery stores. Starship’s concept is aimed at allowing retailers to ship their goods in bulk to a local hub, then use the robot fleet to complete the delivery to the shopper’s home at much less cost that today’s door-to-door delivery services.
Capable of carrying a payload of 40lbs, about the equivalent of two grocery bags, the robots are expected to be able to complete local deliveries within 5 to 30 minutes from the local hub or retail outlet, The robots don’t fly – these are not drones—but instead travel at a brisk walking pace of four miles per hour. The six-wheeled Starship robotic vehicles, powered by an electric motor that consumes just 50 watts, will travel on sidewalks, blending in with pedestrian traffic.
Integrated navigation and obstacle avoidance software will enable the robots to drive autonomously (which Starship says they will do an estimated 99% of the time), but are also overseen by a remote human operator who can step in and take over the steering during a difficult navigational situation--such as crossing busy intersections--to ensure safety.
The robots will travel through neighborhoods that have been pre-mapped at high resolution and will have a camera and radar (but not the much more costly LIDAR sensors being used on autonomous vehicles). The robots also will have speakers and microphones for communicating with the humans it encounters.
Customers will be able to choose from a selection of delivery slots so that goods will arrive at a time that suits them. The robot will drive autonomously to the shopper's doorway and then text an alert message to announce its arrival. During delivery, shoppers can track the robot’s location in real time through a mobile app and on arrival only the app holder is able to unlock and access the cargo. The technology will enable customers to try out or try on products while the robot waits. If they don’t like what they have purchased, the robot can then return it to the store or local shipping hub.
Starship Technologies is currently testing and demonstrating prototypes and plans to launch the first pilot services in cooperation with its service partners in the US, UK and other countries in 2016. Commercial service is planned for 2017.