Robot competition with flying drones to deliver packages is not pie in the sky

Are ground machines more practical than flying drones?
Starship Technologies test drives its delivery robot © Starship Technologies

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Amazon, the online retailer, made headlines last year with its trial of flying drone deliveries, but its efforts look puny compared to an earthbound robot that can carry the equivalent of three full shopping bags, or up to 13 kilogrammes.

Stuart Rivett, managing director of Dutch parcel distribution business B2C Europe, says practical limits on the weight of any drone package are a handicap to introducing flying deliveries and dismisses Amazon’s experiments as “a complete PR stunt”.

While drone deliveries are still pie in the sky, about 20,000 people have already seen delivery robots undergoing tests on streets in Estonia, Germany and Greenwich in London.

Sensors on a robot’s casing detect pedestrians and obstacles and instruct it to slow down, stop or change course while operators can talk remotely to people who come across it via a speaker.

Human reactions have been monitored by video cameras on the chassis that give 360 degree coverage. Allan Martinson, chief operating officer of Starship Technologies, which makes the robots, says the most common response has been indifference: “Around 80 per cent of people pay no attention to the robot at all. They just walk past as if it is the most normal thing.”

Analysts predict the global market for robotics will grow to about £83bn by 2025, so autonomous devices on our roads — from driverless cars to delivery bots — may soon become as commonplace as old-fashioned bicycles.

The Estonia-based company was started by former Skype co-founders Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla.

They believe the retail industry can replace vans for home deliveries within a small radius of a goods depot. The robot’s battery life of 2-2.5 hours gives it a range of about 3 miles. But the effective radius is determined by the economics of short-range deliveries. In this niche market, Starship says a machine that moves at walking pace can cut out about 30 per cent of vehicle deliveries.

Vans would drop goods in bulk at convenient centres where local orders could be put into robots, slashing costs of drivers, fuel, vans and congestion.

The initial batch of 15 robots cost under $10,000 each, but this should fall with full-scale production. Starship’s research and development bill so far has been €2m, much of it being used to employ software engineers to anticipate the situations the robot will encounter and program suitable instructions.

The target is to reduce the cost of local deliveries to under £1. Conventional deliveries can cost £1-£5 or more.

Mr Martinson says that, compared with flying drones, his electrically powered robots use as much energy as a lightbulb, a lot less than that required to lift a small package into the sky in a drone and keep it aloft.

Then there is the question of safety. “If just a few kilogrammes fall from the sky it will do damage to humans and property. Our robot is like a rolling suitcase, [people] do not consider it to be dangerous.”

The robot is safer to use for returns, Mr Martinson adds. Allowing an untrained person to attach something to a flying drone is fraught with risk as packages could be overweight or unbalanced.

Nick Rogers, a partner with UK law firm BLM, says robot technology has been developed in advance of any regulatory framework.

“Governments and consumers will not buy into any new service unless they see it as 100 per cent safe,” Mr Rogers says.

Trevor Dorling is the lead at Digital Greenwich, the urban development initiative that has been testing the robots. While his legal team is deliberating over which traffic laws apply to a delivery robot, he reports that “the legal issues are much simpler than those associated with airborne drones”.

Meanwhile, delivery company DHL has conducted tests with flying delivery drones in Germany. A DHL quadcopter drone spent three months ferrying urgent medical supplies between mainland Europe and the North Sea island of Juist in 2014.

Ole Nordhoff, responsible for German parcel delivery at DHL, says the trial proved that the €40,000 autonomous drone could operate in rough weather. DHL had to persuade German air traffic authorities to relax rules stipulating drones must remain in sight of a human operator, while the regulators limited testing to just three months.

“You need a lot of approvals from different people,” says Mr Nordhoff. “To use drones in a broader way the regulations have to change.”

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