Londoners strolling around Greenwich might spot an unusual kind of delivery service in July. As part of a new trial, dozens of autonomous robots will hit the streets to help retailers deliver their packages and takeaways from store to home.
"We'd like to test the human acceptance of these robots," Henry Harris-Burland from Starship Technologies told me in a phone call. "In past tests, we've already found that 60 to 65 percent of people just ignore the robot completely; the remaining 35 percent are positive about it."
Harris-Burland said that no vandalism had occurred against the delivery bots to date.
When customers place an order, they'll be able to track their robot on their phone as it travels to them. The robot will send out a push notification once it has arrived at people's homes, and a unique pin code will let users unlock their delivery bot to access their order. "It's so your friend doesn't take your pizza instead of you," said Harris-Burland.
The self-driving hamper-style bots have six wheels and an antenna sticking out of them, and will operate within a two to three mile radius to deliver parcels, groceries, and takeaways in 15 to 30 minutes. The bots will eventually be "99 percent autonomous"; the company envisions that there will be one human operator per 100 robots in the event of an emergency. The robots use a mixture of GPS and computer vision to map their environment and allow the company to keep track of their whereabouts. Onboard sensors also let the bots detect their environment and respond accordingly to any obstacles.
"The robot travels at four miles per hour and can only go where pedestrians can," said Harris-Burland. "It will give way to everything from cyclists to pedestrians, so it's kind of like the robot is at the bottom of the food chain."
Starship Technologies is aiming to make delivery operations within the last mile—from store to home—more efficient for retailers. Harris-Burland explained that, in terms of parcel deliveries, retailers often lose profits in the very last stretch of the delivery process when their parcel vans go to people's homes only to find them out. This requires them to waste time by returning to the same house the next day.
"If you think this is all for one package, it's just not very efficient or profitable," said Harris-Burland.
Over the past eight months, Starship Technologies has already done 5,000 miles of testing in 35 cities across 12 countries.
Ultimately, the company wants to make the delivery process more efficient, cut costs, and allow robots to step in when no human laborers are available.
"The on-demand element is important as many people have wasted hours of their lives getting slips through our door that require us to go back to the parcel office to pick up our goods," said Harris-Burland. "Now there is technology that can solve that problem."