Gilster: Robot delivery could open up new category of retailers

Unmanned drones have made plenty of news as a potential delivery mechanism for giant companies like Amazon. But what if there’s a better way? While we work out the numerous regulatory and safety issues associated with drones, particularly in relation to manned aircraft, we might take a look at what a company called Starship Technologies is doing in Britain. The game plan is to turn the delivery of everything from groceries to books over to small robots.

With plans to expand to the US as early as next year, Starship Technologies is the creation of two of Skype’s co-founders who want to bring the same sense of revolutionary possibility to local deliveries that Skype did in the communications space. The problem they’re trying to solve is that the last mile – the actual delivery of goods – is often the least efficient and the most expensive. By the company’s estimates, robot delivery can be at least five times cheaper than conventional FedEx or UPS, and potentially a lot more than this.

Starship Technologies’ robots are now being tested in the UK, each of them low-slung, six-wheeled containers. If anything, they look something like a large bread machine mounted on a wheeled chassis, with an antenna poking out the side. Goods to be delivered go inside.

New category

Take the human operator out of the equation, delivering from a local hub less than 30 minutes away, and you’ve opened up a new category of service. Think about that jar of aspirin you’d like to pick up to ease your headache. Instead of driving to a drugstore, set up an automated delivery at a time of your convenience, using a smartphone app to coordinate the transaction.

The needed pain relief pulls into your driveway just when you’re expecting it, and you get to stay in your bathrobe. Each robot can carry the equivalent of two bags of groceries to customers who unlock the machine’s storage compartment with their smartphone when it arrives.

Moreover, delivery is opened up for a new category of retailers, who may not have the manpower to offer door-to-door delivery now, but could sign on to a system that offers Internet ordering and robotic pickup. We’re already learning that cars can be automated so that they can make trips across the country without human drivers, pointing to a future of increased safety on the roads. In a similar way, these robots move at the pace of a brisk walk and use GPS navigation and obstacle avoidance software to make the trip safely.

Lingering issues

All of which sounds fine, but there are numerous issues to solve. A robot on a sidewalk is one thing, but how does a robot moving at walking speed handle streets without sidewalks? Trials are in progress in parts of London, the plan being to train local robots on the routes they’ll take by mapping out the safest ways for them to proceed. Each route, covering a certain distance from a local hub, will have to be mapped and trained on extensively to make this work.

Human operators will be on standby to step in and take control of the robot if it runs into unexpected problems (surely an expensive proposition). In my view, the biggest problem robots will face is security. Last year a Canadian experimental robot called hitchBOT, intended to actually hitch rides and test people’s attitudes toward robots, was vandalized and destroyed, though not before it had completed a lengthy journey across Canada and, later, Germany.

What’s to stop a similar fate happening to a robot delivering groceries? I don’t think a camera with a human on the other end of it is going to stop someone determined to vandalize a robot or steal what it’s carrying. The savings these robots can offer would be considerable, but they’ll also demand numerous local hubs in order to complete deliveries within the projected 30 minute delivery time. Beating the “last mile” problem through automation sounds like a money-saver, but right now it’s a real question whether current robot technology is up to so demanding a job.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at