If you live in the U.S. but don't live in San Francisco or a few other select testbeds, you'll be forgiven for not knowing that robot deliveries are on the rise. But in many towns around the world, including Milton Keynes in England, robots are already a common sight on city streets. Starship Technologies, a technology and logistics company focused on last-mile delivery services utilizing robots, is celebrating 50,000 commercial deliveries this week in 100 cities around the world. The company sees a change in consumer behavior toward more frequent demand for smaller numbers of items as key to its continued expansion. The customer behavior is called "top up" shopping, and it pairs well with delivery robots with limited payloads but quick response times.
The goal of all these robots is to deliver for what the industry calls the "last mile," or the distance from a local depot to a final destination. Right now, these routes are covered by humans in cars or vans. This is inefficient–it uses too much energy and worsens congestion. These small bots could, in theory, solve many of these "last mile" problems by offering an efficient, quick, and inexpensive way to get your stuff whenever you needed it. This is easier said than done; there are plenty of unanswered questions about how these bots should operate in society.
Order a grocery delivery in the Washington D.C. area in the coming months and you could find yourself opening the door to a self-driving robot. The company behind the wheel-based autonomous bot is about to start testing grocery and restaurant takeout deliveries in the East Coast city after it became the first in the U.S. to greenlight use of the diminutive delivery vehicle, Re/code reported this week. Built by Starship Technologies -- a London-based company started by two Skype co-founders -- the trundling robot uses nine cameras, an array of sensors, and GPS software to navigate its route. The maps, compiled by Starship, are said to be accurate to the nearest inch, though if the robot has any unexpected problems on the way to its destination, a human operator will be on hand to take control remotely. Starship had hoped to get permission to use the robot in San Francisco, but the company was reportedly put off by the city's demand that it pay a hefty 66 permit fee for every side of a city block that it wanted to use.
"One of the things that we have always focused on is how to create a system that works for both parties," Zume Pizza co-founder Julia Collins, told Engadget. "How do we create a system that's stable and predictable, which are great conditions for machines, but flexible and collaborative, which are great conditions for human beings?" Robots are great at repetitive tasks -- like moving pizza in and out of an 800-degree oven 1,000 times a day -- so the goal is not end-to-end automation because that's not what's going to create better food for the customer." Rather than hand-toss dough balls into their circular pizza shape, which can be tiresome and mind-numbingly repetitive for human chefs, a customized hydraulic press, dubbed Doughbot, smashes the ball into shape.