Move aside, Wall-E, for little deliver-e

A dog reacting as a prototype self-driving parcel delivery robot, developed by Starship Technologies, travelled along a sidewalk in Tallinn, Estonia, on April 12. The electric-powered robots were developed to help short-range low-cost deliveries and ultim
A dog reacting as a prototype self-driving parcel delivery robot, developed by Starship Technologies, travelled along a sidewalk in Tallinn, Estonia, on April 12. The electric-powered robots were developed to help short-range low-cost deliveries and ultimately make the local delivery of goods free.PHOTOS: BLOOMBERG
An engineer loading parcels into the trunk of a Starship delivery robot before a test run in Tallinn. So far, no one has tried to abuse such robots.
An engineer loading parcels into the trunk of a Starship delivery robot before a test run in Tallinn. So far, no one has tried to abuse such robots.PHOTOS: BLOOMBERG

Tech firm hopes robot will solve e-commerce's last-mile woes, spur small shops to go online

LONDON • In the shadow of the 02 Arena in London's Greenwich district, what looks like a picnic cooler on wheels zips among groups of gawking children.

This little delivery robot, designed to autonomously navigate pavements, will later this year begin making deliveries from local businesses direct to customers.

In doing so, it may just conquer e-commerce's final frontier: the last mile, the least efficient and most problematic step in the delivery process.

"Thirty to forty per cent of the cost of delivery comes in the last mile," says Mr Allan Martinson, the chief operating officer of Starship Technologies, the company building this robot.

The little delivery robots designed by Starship and a competing United States start-up called Dispatch are the BB-8s and Wall- Es of e-commerce.

The Starship venture is the brainchild of Mr Ahti Heinla, one of Skype's original developers, and is backed by Skype co-founder and tech investor Janus Friis.

Mr Heinla says delivery droids have their advantages. Smaller robots are easier and cheaper to build. Starship's droid weighs less than 16kg and travels slowly, so it is less likely to cause damage. As a wheeled vehicle, there are no spinning rotor-blades that could cause injury - unlike drones.

  • What the robot can do

  • Here's a closer look at the six-wheeled delivery robot, which has already logged more than 3,000km in testing.

    •One robot weighs less than 16kg and is fully wheeled, with no spinning rotor-blades that could cause injury to humans. 

    •The robot covers deliveries within a 4.8km radius of a central logistics hub, navigating using a 3G Global Positioning Satellite signal.

    •Its cargo hold is designed to carry up to 9kg - "three good-sized bags of groceries", says Starship's chief operating officer Allan Martinson - and it travels at a speed of up to 6.4kmh.

    •Because the robot has a simple cargo hold, customers can use it to return items to the retailer.

    •With six wheels driven by four independent motors, the robot can climb single steps and kerbs, potentially making a delivery directly to a customer's door.

    •The robot has nine cameras to help it navigate city pavements. Sensors help it avoid tree roots, toddlers and dog poo. It is programmed to wait for groups of people crossing in front of it. A human driver can also pilot it remotely, if it gets into a bind.

    •An electronic lock keeps cargo safe en route, while the robot's ability to send an operator its current location and even live video feed is designed to deter potential thieves.

    •With its current battery design, the robot can operate for more than two hours continuously before needing to recharge or replace its battery pack.

    •When these bots deliver alcohol, its cameras can even check IDs to ensure recipients are old enough to consume alcohol.

    BLOOMBERG

Most importantly, it travels on pavements, not roads, which simplifies getting regulatory approval to operate.

Starship robots have already covered more than 3,000km in Britain, Germany, Belgium, Estonia and the US, with more than 80,000km planned this year. "We've tested it in snow, slush, ice and rain - you name it," Mr Martinson says.

In comparison, drones are being tested in highly controlled environments, with commercial deliveries on hold until regulators work out safety, liability, air rights and privacy issues. Autonomous vehicles are so far only allowed limited tests on public roads.

While Starship's robot may be the first to market, victory isn't assured. The droids have limitations, with economic viability confined within urban areas. Drones have a higher sticker price and bigger regulatory hurdles to surmount, but may prove less expensive on a per-km basis. And for the foreseeable future, some logistics experts say, humans still have the edge over any sci-fi-inspired contenders.

These scrappy droids are also up against tech's strongest forces. Amazon is testing airborne drones, as are Wal-Mart and Google. Google has also sought patents for a driverless truck that would carry an array of storage lockers that unlock with a text message. And Uber is deploying drivers for food delivery, a concept that could be expanded to other products. And don't forget incumbents from Federal Express and UPS to government postal services.

San Francisco-based Dispatch, founded by former computer scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and backed by Silicon Valley venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, is also testing its own ground drone called Carry.

As population density is the biggest factor in determining last-mile costs, there may not be one solution. In crowded cities, a network of bicycle couriers might be the best option, while in rural areas drones may be the most efficient. Starship says its ideal delivery area is not as densely populated as cities like New York or London. But many suburbs and smaller cities, like Montreal or Copenhagen, are in its target zone.

Mr Heinla had long been interested in robots. But in 2014, he had his last-mile eureka moment. "I knew it was technically possible to build a small robot that would still go fast enough that you wouldn't need a big vehicle to do the job that is done by big vehicles today," he says.

Because small robots are less expensive to build than trucks or drones, Starship anticipates being able to offer them to local shopkeepers on a leased basis - essentially "robot-delivery-as-a-service", says Mr Martinson.

With a target delivery cost of £1 (S$1.93) to £3 per delivery, the robots will allow these businesses, which have often been shut out of e-commerce by high delivery costs, to begin selling online, he says.

In its trials so far, Mr Martinson estimates that the Starship robots have encountered some 30,000 pedestrians, including thousands of children. So far, no one has tried to abuse them.

Mr Friis says that people of all ages seem to greet the small machine with a sense of awe. "It is really amazing but people seem to have an instant emotional connection to the robot," he says. Emotional connection? Just try delivering that with a drone.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline 'Move aside, Wall-E, for little deliver-e'. Print Edition | Subscribe