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Delivery droids

Parizad Mangi

Will robots be better at deliveries than drones?

How many times have you watched sci-fi fantasies where tiny robots come bearing goods while flying cars whoosh across the skyline in the background and wished you could have those futuristic comforts?

Flying cars may still be far off, but delivery robots could very soon be a reality. San Francisco-based Estonian company Starship Technologies tested its autonomous delivery robots on the city’s streets. Dispatch, another company based in the same city, has developed a similar robot that’s being tested. Recently, even Dominos Pizza have raised the dough with a Delivery Robot Unit.

The tech world is speculating that these small companies could beat conglomerates such as Google and Amazon in the delivery race, the latter opting to invest in delivery drones. This is largely down to the robots’ ability to better adapt to urban landscapes.

Powered by battery, these robots have much lower carbon emissions than a large delivery truck, as well as being more time efficient. 

However, the safety of pedestrians is the principal priority. Delivery robots roll down the pavement at about 4mph and are equipped with sensors that prevent them from bumping into humans and inanimate objects.

Malfunctioning robot delivery systems could easily be fixed by local technicians, whereas drones could drop from the sky and cause serious injury or damage if the system failed.

Starship Technologies is confident that delivery robots will be commercialised before delivery drones. This is due to a number of factors. First, aerial drones require more energy to lift off the ground and make their journey, as opposed to a robot rolling down the street at a moderate speed. This would lead to steep drone delivery charges that may not be affordable for an average civilian. The battery life of drones could also pose an issue, especially when bigger packages entail larger and heavier drones. On the other hand, a delivery robot can carry up to 10kg.

Aerial surveillance through drone cameras raises privacy concerns in what already feels like an Orwellian age, and nobody wants Big Brother’s eye to wander any farther. An unidentified foreign object in the sky carrying packages can cause panic in a country like the US where citizens are already paranoid about security threats. A potentially ominous delivery robot would be easier to intercept.

Whether American urbanites will accept robots in already densely populated city centres remains to be seen. However, Starship Technologies is focusing on introducing the robots to residential spaces only for the time being.

Starship Technologies told PE: “We’ve been talking to 1.3 million people and they actually want to see these delivery robots, which is a hugely positive statement. Our robots are suited for suburban areas, so don’t think about Leicester Square or Oxford Street at 5pm. It’s more for areas where there’s slightly less population density on the pavements.”

There are also legislative obstacles for delivery robots in the US where there are no set laws for autonomous robots, but their restriction to the pavements could make it easier to pass those frameworks than it would be for autonomous cars. The company clarified that it is aiming for 99% autonomous driving, meaning there will always be an element of human oversight to enable technicians to take control over the robot if need be.

Theft prevention measurements have also been implemented, including nine cameras around the front and back, tracking to the nearest inch, alarms for when the robot is manually diverted, and two-way audio, enabling technicians to communicate with people in the environment around the robot and listen to them as well. However, no cases of theft have occurred during test runs.

Starship Technologies expects the robots to be in commercial use by 2017, depending on the success of the testing programme.

With the delivery robots being programmed to prioritise metropolitan safety and efficiency, they could very well zoom past flying drones to the finish line. 
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