Earthbound Delivery Drones on the Horizon (and the Sidewalk)

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For fans of I, Robot, it looks like science fiction, yet again, is bleeding into reality. While we’ve still got a ways to go before human-like androids act as personal plastic-formed assistants, one company is rolling out earthbound delivery drones to make last-mile delivery runs.

While the drones of the air neither reap, nor sow, nor have the strength to carry heavier weight packages, robotics company Starship Technologies is taking a more grounded approach to drone-driven logistics. By implementing compact, wheeled drones that cruise along sidewalks among human foot traffic at a brisk four miles per hour, the company hopes to solve last-mile delivery problems with a package carrying weight of up to 22 pounds. Compared to the aerial PARC delivery drones UPS and CyPhy are testing out that can only carry an average of five pounds, Starship’s sidewalk robots might be a more practical solution — at least for the time being.

The delivery robots are still being tested in select areas both abroad in Europe and here in the United States. As they lack the flexibility of aerial drones (flying over obstacles is much easier than rerouting around them on land), these land-based models are designed to weave in and out alongside other pedestrians, incorporating a variety of detection systems to avoid collisions with others walking on the sidewalk, in addition to bikes and cars. With six wheels and a roughly two-and-a-half operating radius, these earthbound delivery drones can either be fully automated, piloted by a human operator, or a mix of those two configurations.

The Path Less Traveled

Certainly, a lot of recent news surrounding drone delivery focuses on the flying kind, including the legality of shooting potential trespassing robots down (which, so far is hit or miss, depending on the jurisdiction’s feelings, though most discourage discharging firearms in populated areas). With earthbound delivery drones, however, there’s been much more success when it comes to “humanizing” the machines, letting them go about their pre-programmed business.

Henry Harris-Burland, the Marketing and Communications Manager for Starship Technologies in London, told Packaging Digest about a successful trial run at the University of Arkansas:

“[The tests have] been very successful. Social acceptance and public reaction have been extremely positive, which is great. One of our findings is that a large majority of people — say, 60 percent, 65 percent — actually ignore the robot, which is really strange, but they do. And 35-45 percent [of reactions] are overwhelmingly positive. Social acceptance and humanization of the robot were two very important points to learn about the real-world environment… There are kids trying to pet the robot like it’s an animal. It’s been crazy.”

When speaking with The Washingtonian on the robots’ next test run in Washington, D.C. later this year, Harris-Burland mentioned that they have even “seen kids try to feed on a banana” in their Arkansas trials. These tests are chiefly conducted to measure the reliability of the drones, as well as their ability to learn and react to their environment and other pedestrians in it.

Starship is currently operating with a three-phase development model, weaning the robots from complete human reliance to virtual autonomy. Phase 1 was the test in Arkansas where “the robots are 100 percent human-operated” and mapping their environment. Phase 2 will have the robots build their own 3D map of the surrounding area and drive themselves around autonomously. By Phase 3, the goal is to have “99 percent autonomous driving, where one human can control 100 robots” at once, only intercepting when needed — like when a foreign object such as a downed tree is blocking the way and the robot needs help manually calculating a new route. Another test in Silicon Valley with about 90 percent autonomy was widely considered successful, which you can check out in the video below.

Wheels, Hubs, Spokes, and Robots

From a logistics perspective, when applied to practice delivery runs, the current model remains virtually unchanged aside from the soughtafter last mile. “The point of Starship Technologies’ delivery robot is to solve the last-mile problem, and the last-mile problem, as we know, is between the hub and the human’s home,” Harris-Burland explains. “What would actually happen is the delivery drivers and vans would deliver as normal, but instead of delivering to people’s homes, they’d be delivering to a central Starship hub, and then the robots would take over and deliver to consumers’ homes.”

By using this wheel-and-spoke model, Starship (in partnership with existing delivery companies) hopes to deliver everything from “food, groceries, and other parcels within 15 to 30 minutes for a $1 to $3 fee.” The company is ultimately aiming to bring that cost down to a single dollar across the board. On how they’re planning to do that:

“Upon online checkout, users will be able to select if they want robot delivery. From there, the robots will leave a hub where they live and travel to a grocery store or restaurant. (If the business has stairs, then the staff would have to go outside to meet the robot. It can, however, handle curbs up to 20 centimeters tall). Someone would then put the delivery inside the robot’s secure compartment, and it would travel at no more than four miles per hour to its destination. The robots have nine cameras, GPS, and obstacle detection so they don’t bump into anything.”

The use of the word “live” when describing the robots is an interesting choice, though still aligns with the company’s goal to humanize the wheeled delivery drones. They even have two-way audio to talk and listen to others around them, which is helpful for when they need, for example, someone to push a button for a walk light.

At present, the use of these earthbound delivery drones shouldn’t affect packaging standards. As Harris-Burland puts it, “we’re creating something that can integrate easily into the current transportation system, which is one of the benefits of the service.” It’s important to note, however, that this is at least in reference to short- and mid-term projects; whether or not packaging will have to adapt in the long-term (assuming these robots are as successful as Starship is banking on), will be a bridge to be crossed in the future.

The Future, Now

In preparation for the test in DC, the district passed a special piece of legislation — aptly called the “Personal Delivery Device Pilot Act of 2016” — last June, paving the way for the robot’s use. While we couldn’t find the precise language of the act itself, we did find legislation detailing the drones’ effect on the 2017 fiscal year under “Subtitle (VI)(Q)”:

The subtitle requires the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) to implement a personal delivery device pilot program. Personal delivery services are mostly autonomous robots that operate in public space and deliver goods from a store or other central location to a resident or business. An application for the pilot can have no more than five devices [*132] and must pay a $250 application fee. The pilot program will operate from September 15, 2016 through December 31, 2017; however, an applicant’s registration is valid for one year or until December 31, 2017, whichever is first. DDOT can revoke a participant’s registration at any time if it fails to meet the program’s requirements.

There are very few companies that operate these personal delivery devices and the pilot will be limited to five devices per participant in an area outside of the central business district. DDOT does not require any additional resources in the budget to implement the subtitle due to the limited nature of the pilot.

[*132]: Devices must weigh under 50 pounds and travel at speeds of 10 miles per hour or less.

Luckily for Starship, their device is well within those last limits and only measuring about 27 inches long x 22 inches wide x 22 inches high.

Aside from increasing delivery efficiency, Harris-Burland and company want to solve a range of DC’s problems: “Delivery in DC is very inefficient at the moment. There’s a big problem with vans clogging up the streets in downtown delivering parcels. The city wants to change that as well. They want less congestion, less CO2, and we can offer that.” While, per the act, only five robots will be able to operate during the trial, Starship is still planning on which neighborhoods it’ll deploy their test drones.

“The benefit to consumers is convenience… You can call the robot to your house within any five-minute window, any time of day or night. [And] what we’re aiming to do is bring the cost of delivery down to a dollar in the next couple of years, which is completely unprecedented.”

Now, you have to be wondering: what’s stopping someone from stealing the delivery drone by plucking it off the sidewalk and running away with it? Surprisingly, of the estimated 1.3 million people who have come in contact with them, none of them have tried to make off with the robots or their precious cargo. Even if they did, a number of security features were added to repel potential thieves: the delivery compartment remains locked until the drone gets to its destination; if the drone is picked up, an alarm blares drawing a lot of attention to the ne’er-do-well. Of course, if the thief still manages to grab and go, Starship tracks its robots down to the nearest inch. “If you put it in your car, we’re going to know where you are,” Harris-Burland brags.

As far as the outlook on this technology goes, we can expect more drones in the future, by land, sea, and air. I just hope they don’t follow suit with their counterparts in I, Robot and have a robot revolution.


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