Autonomous delivery robots hit the streets while drones face regulatory hurdles.
They’re not quite the Mars rover, but these Earth-based robots provide a service of a different sort: delivery. London-based Starship Technologies, already piloting robot delivery services in the District of Columbia and Redwood City, California, and elsewhere across the globe, has now won that right in Virginia. Come this summer, the Old Dominion state will be the nation’s first to codify the rights of the so-called “electric personal delivery device.” Idaho, Florida, and other states are also mulling legislation similar to the robot package Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliff just signed.
These wheeled robots—or call them land-based drones if you want—have a clear leg up on aerial-drone delivery services envisioned by Google, Amazon, and others. Air delivery brings with it a more scrutinized regulatory process and heightened safety standards. Research firm Gartner said in a report last month that drone delivery “will not be a major factor for several years.”
But the sidewalk-based drone delivery market, however, appears to be shifting into gear, or at least into first gear. Take a look at Virginia’s definitions and rules for personal delivery robots, which apply to all companies, not just Starship Technologies:
“Electric personal delivery device” means an electrically powered device that (i) is operated on sidewalks, shared-use paths, and crosswalks and intended primarily to transport property; (ii) weighs less than 50 pounds, excluding cargo; (iii) has a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour; and (iv) is equipped with technology to allow for operation of the device with or without the active control or monitoring of a natural person.
“Electric personal delivery device operator” means an entity or its agent who exercises direct physical control or monitoring over the navigation system and operation of an electric personal delivery device. For the purposes of this definition, “agent” means a person not less than 16 years of age charged by an entity with the responsibility of navigating and operating an electric personal delivery device. “Electric personal delivery device operator” does not include (i) an entity or person who requests the services of an electric personal delivery device to transport property or (ii) an entity or person who only arranges for and dispatches the requested services of an electric personal delivery device.
Starship Technologies’ robots already fit the bill. They travel at a pedestrian speed, can alert passersby of their presence, and can deliver items within about a 2-mile radius. They weigh under the 50-pound limit. When these robots arrive at your door, you get a text message and a link that will also unlock the cargo bay, which can hold about 20 pounds of goods and is the size of about three grocery bags.
Customers can also monitor their delivery on their mobile phones. And, under the Virginia law, the robots at a minimum must be remotely monitored, which Starship says it can do. Starship says it maps out service areas and, by doing so, its robots know where they are within an inch.
Henry Harris-Burland, a company spokesman, told Ars that the delivery process works the same as it does with human delivery persons, but with one caveat. “The only difference,” he said, “is a robot will come up and deliver your food.”
But Starship, built by Skype founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, appears to be leading the pack. In January, Daimler led a $17.2 million funding round for the startup, whose camera- and sensor-laden robots can also keep goods hot and cold.
Let’s pray that these delivery robots don’t become self-aware and drink your beer en route to your house.
Listing image by Starship Technologies