December 21, 2015 10:00 AM, EST

Self-Driving Delivery Robot Could Be Santa's New Helper

Starship Technologies
Starship Technologies

Fleets of small autonomous robots soon could become a familiar presence on public pathways with the advent of ground-based drones that aim to improve local delivery of goods and groceries.

Former Skype co-founders have launched Starship Technologies, which is preparing to test its self-driving delivery robots in London.

The as-yet-unnamed robots are small, safe, practical and free from CO2 emissions, according to the developers.

"When you place your order online, as you do right now, instead of getting the delivery by somebody coming up to your door and knocking on your door, you would get it by a robot," said Ahti Heinla, a Skype co-founder and CEO at Starship Technologies.

The robots can carry the equivalent of two bags of shopping and complete local deliveries in between five and 30 minutes from a designated hub or retail outlet.

Heinla said that the robots are not designed for long-distance orders but for completing the final mile of a delivery.

He said this puts the customer in control of their deliveries by allowing them to choose from a selection of short, precise delivery slots.

"When you as a consumer, when you find it convenient for you, you call up the delivery using your smartphone. And then the robot gets loaded with your parcel in our hub and it drives to your doorstep. And that takes about 20 minutes. So instead of having a delivery window of half a day or something that you're getting your delivery sometime during today; you can pick a delivery window that is like 10 minutes," Heinla said.

When a package is out for delivery with a robot, the customer can track it in real time on a smartphone.

When it arrives at the delivery address, the customer uses the smartphone to unlock the secure compartment to access the goods.

In Greenwich, London, close to where the pilot schemes will take place, the drone drew a few puzzled looks but also a largely positive response from passers-by.

Starship's technology uses 'off-the-shelf' components, with the robots light weight and low cost enabling the company to bring the current cost of delivery down by 10-15 times per shipment.

Each delivery robot will be fitted with navigation and obstacle avoidance software, with the company saying the robots will drive autonomously 99% of the time. But they also are overseen by human operators who can step in to ensure safety at all times.

Any concern about theft of the robot's cargo can be allayed by the in-built security features that Heinla said makes the potential reward for a would-be robber not worth the risk.

"While you might think that some people would want to steal something from the robot, it's actually much harder than you would think," Heinla said. "First, the parcel compartment is obviously locked. So it's not easy to break into the robot, especially if you don't have any special tools to do it. And most hooligans on the street, they don't have special tools. Secondly, the robot has nine cameras, and it's constantly connected to the Internet. It has GPS. There is an operator that can actually talk to people around the robot, there is a loudspeaker and microphone in the robot. So it's not that easy, actually."

Automated delivery services are being developed by a number of companies, including Google and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Online retailer Inc., whose unmanned aerial drones are looking to take flight in the near future, recently launched a video showing a prototype of their technology. Starship Technologies, however, says there are huge "social acceptance" problems with autonomous airborne drones; something their earthbound robots won't have.

"It's safer than a flying drone. People actually do not like low flying drones, especially when they are flying over their backyard and it's a buzzing, flying machine. If it's doing a delivery for you maybe it's OK. But of it's doing a delivery for somebody else, you know, people don't like that," Heinla said. "People don't like other machines flying over their backyard where their children are playing. So there's huge social acceptance problems with the robots, with the robots that are flying. But not so much for the robots that are land-based, and safe, and look cute."

Starship Technologies will launch real-life trials of the robots in London and a couple of U.S. cities in the spring.