Entrepreneur Ahti Heinla had been working with robots and also building them in his spare time when he responded to a request from NASA to help develop an autonomous rough-terrain robot to find and retrieve rock samples on Mars. The proposal that he submitted to NASA was not successful but he and colleague Janus Friis then came up with the idea of using robots to make deliveries in suburban areas.
Today, their company, Starship Technologies, has offices around the world and its delivery robots have travelled over 200,000 miles delivering over 50,000 orders in many neighbourhoods and on university campuses. At George Mason University, its fleet of 25 robots makes it the largest robot food delivery service on a university campus.
Cost Saving Deliveries
The idea for the robot delivery service developed from the insight that 95% of the things that people order online are small enough to be delivered by a small robot at lower cost than that which delivery companies typically incur in the last few miles of a journey.
Delivery robots use similar technology to that found in autonomous cars, such as cameras, ultrasonics and GPS guidance. But they are not totally autonomous. The robots are able to put in a call to a human operator for assistance if a problem arises. The human operator may be overseeing over 100 robots at any time. The operator may not even be in the same country but can watch every delivery.
So how have pedestrians reacted to small robots trundling along sidewalks in amongst the human walkers?
When Starship rolled out their first robots to test them in action, at first people would stop and take photos but after seeing a few of them, most would lose interest and accepted them as part of the urban environment. Pedestrians do not seem to find them intrusive or a hindrance to them going about their normal business.
It appears that sidewalk robots, far from being robot toys, could be here to stay.