Tech Trends for 2017: Delivery robots

Self-driving robots can now be found on London's streets. With advances in automated technology, ‘fast food’ is about to get a whole new meaning in 2017…

Imagine that you order a takeaway and, instead of getting a driver at your door, you’re greeted by a self-driving robot carrying your takeaway meal. Now stop imagining; this scenario has become a reality.

Delivery robots, or delivery bots, might sound like a fictional concept but an innovative company – London-based Starship Technologies – is pioneering the technology with its fleet of robotic “personal couriers”.

The brainchild of Skype co-founders Ahti Hienla and Janus Friis, Starship’s bots are intended to transform local delivery by making the process faster, smarter and more cost-effective. The bots can carry items within a three-mile radius, travel at up to four miles per hour, produce zero emissions, and weigh no more than 40 pounds. It has even been argued that, in the long-term, these bots have the potential to replace takeaway drivers.

In 2017, delivery bots are going to move into the mainstream so don’t be alarmed if you’re next takeaway is delivered by a robot:

On December 1 2016, online takeaway giant Just Eat launched its first trial of delivery robots onto the streets of Greenwich, London with live customer delivery in partnership with Starship.

Designed to increase the delivery capacity of its restaurant partners, Just Eat is running the trial with 10 takeaway businesses and it intends to expand the programme across London in 2017. The firm has said its ultimate ambition is to have a fleet of delivery bots across multiple neighbourhoods in Britain.

And Just Eat isn’t the only business to recognise the possibilities of delivery robots. London-based food delivery start-up Pronto has also added autonomous robots to its offering with trials in the capital.

While we’ve already seen delivery drones emerge as a tech trend with Google and Amazon piloting civilian drones for their services, delivery bots are the next best thing as they overcome the commercial limitations of drones which are prohibited in built-up areas.

However, that’s not to say that there aren’t limitations for delivery bots. Questions around security: What’s to stop someone stealing a bot off the street?, time-limitations: Surely a takeaway driver will deliver a meal quicker than a device with max speeds of four miles an hour?, and demand: Won’t customers prefer face-to-face interaction with a human driver to faceless interaction with a delivery bot?, are all those that Starship – and the companies it partners with – are going to have to overcome.

How it works

Said to be secure and reliable, Starship’s delivery robots are designed in such a way that they drive autonomously but are monitored by humans who can take over control at any time.

Customers receiving their meals via a delivery robot will be sent a code via text to open the robot and gain access to their food. In the case of Just Eat, for example, the restaurant will place the customer order in the robot’s cargo hold and the customer will then receive a text to let them knew their order is on the way.

Once the robot has arrived, another text message with a unique link is then sent to the customer to open the cargo hold of the robot. Starship claims the robots are inherently safe and, by using in-built intelligence and a local hub system, can navigate around objects and people.

In the last year, Starship has launched its bots in the UK, Germany and Switzerland. It hasn’t restricted its deliveries to food either as, alongside JustEat and Pronto, it has also worked with Hermes, Metro Group, Swiss Post, and Mercedez Benz for grocery, medical and parcel deliveries.

When it comes to the growth of delivery robots over the next 12 months, Allan Martinson, COO of Starship has said that “public acceptance and positive social engagement is incredibly important”:

“From our 10,000 miles of testing, the robots have experienced thousands of different interactions with the public. We’ve seen everything from children trying to feed our robot bananas, to an elderly gentleman asking if the robot can walk his dog! Most important above all else is we’ve found the delivery robots have been accepted by humans.”

Starship’s Heinla added:

“Starship’s testing programme is one of the most extensive tests of self-driving technologies in the world. In our first 12 months of testing, the delivery robots drove roughly the same amount of time as Google’s self-driving cars in their first year.”

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