November 28, 2016 8:45 AM, EST

California Town Mulls Autonomous Delivery Robots

Starship Technologies

Delivery robots zipping around a city may seem like something out of science fiction, but the future could come sooner than anticipated in Sunnyvale, California.

Henry Harris-Burland, marketing and communications manager at Starship Technologies, presented the concept to Sunnyvale City Council members, asking them to consider allowing the company to run a test pilot program in the city using autonomous delivery robots that would deliver parcels, groceries and food.

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“They will fundamentally change the way things are sent and received by people in local neighborhoods,” Harris-Burland said.

The European company, with headquarters in London, has developed self-driving robots that can deliver goods over short distances, traveling a maximum speed of 4 miles per hour. The robots somewhat resemble ice chests on six wheels. Harris-Burland said the company has had success in four pilot programs conducted in European cities.

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Because of their size, robots travel only on sidewalks and curbs. Harris-Burland told the council that one of the company’s robots could take as many as 10 delivery cars off the road. The robots use GPS and their own software to find their way around cities.

A video played for the council showed someone opening the robot and putting several items into a large compartment area. The robots can handle about 20 pounds of items.

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Recipients can select a delivery time and can track the robot on an app. They are alerted via Starship’s app when a package arrives. Only the recipient with the app that made the delivery request can open the robot.

Starship is running a pilot with the robots in Washington, D.C., and locally in Menlo Park and Redwood City, California. According to Starship, robots in Redwood City will be scheduled to deliver one package per hour.

The robots are being touted as a way to provide small businesses that otherwise would not be able to afford traditional delivery services with a cheaper mode of delivery. Robots are able to deliver within a 3-mile radius of their hub. They run on rechargeable batteries.

Harris-Burland, however, told the council that the robots are not yet completely autonomous and require human operators when crossing streets. Starship hopes further testing eventually will lead to full automation.

Council members seemed receptive to the presentation and indicated that they would like to move forward with the appropriate permits needed to start a pilot program.

Councilwoman Tara Martin-Milius asked about security issues with the robots, particularly vandalism and theft of parcels. Harris-Burland said robots are locked until they reach their destinations, are tracked with precision, are equipped with nine cameras and sound an alarm if someone tries to pick them up before they reach their destination.

The council directed Starship to work further with city staff on a plan.

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