STORES Magazine - September 2017 - 52
Starship Technologies believes the future of last-mile delivery lies with its robots
by SUSAN REDA, EDITOR
haring the sidewalk with a
semi-autonomous robot can be
a curious affair. Some pedestrians
have tried blocking its path to test its
navigational skills; one youngster even
tried to feed it a banana. Still, in cities
like Washington, D.C., and London,
where the ordinary and the illogical
routinely share the sidewalks, most are
nonplussed by a robot that resembles a
tricked-out cooler on six wheels.
That's a good thing, according to
Starship Technologies Chief Operating
Officer Allan Martinson, who believes
the future of last mile deliveries lies with
these "wheeling voyagers. Robots will
transform short-distance deliveries in cities
where traffic congestion tends to cripple
economies of scale," Martinson says.
"On-demand delivery costs are
expensive and they require humans. Using
the robots literally puts the package on
wheels and strips a ton of cost out of
The startup, created by two of
Skype's co-founders, Ahti Heinla and
Janus Friis, aims to create fleets of the
small delivery robots across the globe.
"Our vision revolves around three
zeroes - zero cost, zero waiting time and
zero environmental impact," Heinla says.
"We want to do to local deliveries what
Skype did to telecommunications."
Starship launched pilot projects in
Washington, D.C., and Redwood, Calif.,
in February; the company began testing
last year in cities in Estonia, Switzerland,
Germany and the United Kingdom,
home of the company's business
headquarters. Partners vary by location;
in the United States, the startup is
working with DoorDash and Postmates.
The robotic delivery system, equipped
with GPS, computer vision and proprietary
mapping techniques, can pinpoint exact
locations to the nearest inch.
STORES September 2017
deliveries in cities
tends to cripple
- Allan Martinson,
Outfitted with nine cameras and
ultrasonic sensors to detect obstacles,
the robot yields for pedestrians, cyclists,
wheelchairs and dogs. It weighs about
40 pounds without cargo and can carry
up to 20 pounds. The robot can move
at a speed of 10 miles per hour, but it
generally rolls along at pedestrian
speed - more akin to 4 miles per hour.
The robots are monitored at all
times; if someone tries to snatch it
from its path or steal the contents,
they're likely to be quickly intercepted.
"We've had instances where someone
tries to pick up the robot," Martinson
says. "They don't get very far. We know
where the robots are at all times. The
robot is like a big homing beacon."
Users can track the robot's location in
real time through a smartphone app;
once the parcel arrives, the person
receiving the delivery can unlock the
cargo with a code sent via text message.
LOWER ENERGY AND COSTS
While there is plenty of industry
buzz about using drones for package
delivery, Martinson says the robots
are better suited for cities and suburbs
where they can roll along the
sidewalks, and feels that the
drones are more appropriate
for remote, rural areas.
"There are notable
differences between the two.
Drones require more energy and
must be equipped with a bigger
battery. The maximum amount of
weight they can lift and carry is about
5 pounds. Drones are expensive to
build and they're not permitted to fly
everywhere," he says.
"The Starship robots are rolling,
which translates into less energy used
- and we're building them as costeffectively as we're able to, to provide
With numerous tests ongoing,
Martinson is upbeat about the future.
"In the areas where we've tested the
robots, they quickly become part of the
urban infrastructure. We're giving local
businesses and grocery stores a chance
to free up employees from deliveries,
and reduce costs too."