Self-driving robotic vehicles to hit the sidewalks of Washington, D.C.
The nation’s capital is the first American city to become a testing ground for the services of Starship Technologies, a London-based company with a vision of using six-wheeled vehicles the size of camping coolers to get packages to people in a pollution-free way.
“The company wanted to start in a major city – and an urban area rather than a suburb – because you need density for it to work,” City Councilwoman Mary Cheh told AMI Newswire.
Cheh, who chairs the city’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, was approached by Starship Technologies about the possibility of passing legislation that would allow the delivery bots permission to travel in the city at speeds of up to 10 miles per hour.
“They can maneuver their way quite effectively,” the councilwoman said of the camera-equipped robots, which are designed to avoid bumping into humans and can handle traffic lights.
In the spring, Cheh and company officials held a press conference outside the municipal offices to show that the rolling robot could deliver a copy of the councilwoman’s proposed legislation to the Office of the Secretary, which manages public records for local government agencies.
Although the legislation that would allow the delivery robots to share sidewalks with pedestrians, Segways and wheelchairs has yet to be passed by city council, the District Department of Transportation has been given the green light for a pilot program to monitor the robotic delivery system beginning on Oct. 1.
The legislation would require that the robotic devices not disrupt pedestrian or bicycle traffic and be equipped with a means to alert the operator in the event of a technical failure.
The features of the delivery system that attracted Cheh’s attention include customer security and environmental friendliness. The councilwoman said she often hears stories of stolen packages that were left at homes, but the Starship Technologies system allows customers to track the progress of the robot using a mobile phone and to retrieve the package as soon as it arrives – at a time of their choosing.
In addition, the battery-powered robotic delivery vehicles could replace more traditional exhaust-spewing delivery trucks and potentially reduce costs associated with the final mile of many e-commerce deliveries, she said.
What types of things will be delivered will be up to the vendors, but some of the possibilities include groceries, books, DVDs and fast food.
“On my pizza deliveries, I know, one, I want the pizza to be warm and, two, I won’t have to tip the little thing,” Cheh said.
The company has not yet chosen which local businesses and e-commerce stores it will be working with. But Henry Harris-Burland, Starship’s marketing and communications manager, told AMI Newswire that the three areas it is focusing on are packages ordered online, groceries and ready-to-eat meals.
“You call for a robot when it’s convenient to you,” Harris-Burland said. “There’s no more waiting around the home.”
The robotic vehicles are capable of carrying items weighing up to 22 pounds, he said, and they can travel distances of about three miles. The robots will be based at hub locations in neighborhoods around the city, Harris-Burland said.
The vehicles, which are now wheeling around Europe in cities such as London, Hamburg and Bern, Switzerland, will be monitored and assisted by company officials as the pilot program starts up, he said. But the robots are designed to function 99 percent autonomously once enough information has been gathered to build three-dimensional maps of the regions they operate in.
Harris-Burland said the company is interested in expanding to other regions of the United States, including San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; and the area around the University of Arkansas. Pricing for on-demand deliveries can be as low as $1, once the system is fully up and running, he said.
The robots also can take evasive action if someone tries to steal one, and the company will be able to continuously track their locations.
“The robots have met one million people around the world in 12 countries,” Harris-Burland said. “There has been no incident of theft yet.”