Princess Leia bet on droids, not drones, to get her priority package delivered. And that turned out OK, except for her planet getting blown up. A Skype founder's new hope is that droids can work just as well on Earth.
In the shadow of Greenwich’s 02 Arena - the futuristic dome originally built as London’s showpiece for the Millennium - what looks like a picnic cooler on wheels zips among groups of gawking children. This little delivery robot, designed to autonomously navigate sidewalks, not roads, later this year will 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 percent of the cost of delivery comes in the last mile,” says Allan Martinson, the chief operating officer of Starship Technologies, the company building this robot. The venture is the brainchild of Ahti Heinla, one of Skype’s original developers, and is backed by billionaire Skype co-founder and tech investor Janus Friis.
The little delivery robots designed by Starship and a competing U.S. startup called Dispatch are the BB-8s and Wall-E's of e-commerce. These scrappy droids are 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.
While Starship's robot may be first to market, victory isn't assured. The droids have limitations, with economic viability confined urban areas. Drones have a higher sticker price and bigger regulatory hurdles to surmount, but may prove less expensive on a per-mile basis. And for the foreseeable future, some logistics experts say, humans still have the edge over any sci-fi inspired contenders.
Heinla, a tall, gaunt Estonian with shaggy blond hair and the disheveled look of an engineer for whom form matters more than fashion, says delivery droids have their advantages. Smaller robots are easier and cheaper to build. Because Starship’s droid weighs less than 35 pounds and travels slowly, it's less likely to cause damage. As a wheeled vehicle, there are no spinning rotorblades that could cause injury - unlike drones.
Most importantly it travels on sidewalks not roads, which simplifies getting regulatory approval to operate. Starship robots have already covered more than 1,900 miles in the U.K., Germany, Belgium, Estonia and the U.S., with more than 50,000 miles planned this year. 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.
“We’ve tested it in snow, slush, ice and rain – you name it,” Martinson says. In the U.S., Starship is testing its robot in Fayetteville, Arkansas, about 35 miles from Wal-Mart’s Bentonville headquarters, in conjunction with an innovation lab at the University of Arkansas named after the family of Wal-Mart chief executive Doug McMillon. This has lead to speculation the giant retailer may be interested in the little robot. Wal-Mart's 415C Lab, an internal unit investigating various disruptive technologies, has said it is monitoring the testing program. Starship won’t comment on a possible tie-up with Wal-Mart. But Martinson says he expects the first e-commerce customers to start using the robots later this year.