Meals on wheels: testing a pizza delivery robot
Starship Technologies has partnered with delivery companies across the world to test autonomous, six-wheeled robots. But are city pedestrians ready to share pavements with them? The FT's Daniel Garrahan follows one delivering pizzas in south London.
Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis and James Sandy. Produced by Daniel Garrahan
If you've been walking around the streets of Southwark in south London recently, you may have spotted one of these. The UK capital is just one of several cities in 15 countries across the world where these autonomous six-wheeled robots have been tested. Their mission, delivering takeaway food. They've been developed by Starship Technologies, which has partnered with several major delivery companies, from Just Eat in the UK to DoorDash in the US.
So how do these things navigate the streets? And are people in a busy city like London really prepared to share their pavement space with a robot that's about the same size as a suitcase? And what happens if the robot meets challenges along its route? I want to try and find out by putting a Starship robot to the test.
It's late morning in London and the FT's European technology correspondent, Aliya Ram, fancies a pizza for lunch. She places her order on her smartphone using the Just Eat application. The order is then received at a pizza place near the FT. The pizza is made as usual, but rather than being given to a human being on a moped, it's loaded into the bowels of a Starship robot. During the testing phase, the robots are accompanied by human walkers who observe their progress.
The robot has a number of different sensors - ultrasonic, which is what you find on the back of your car when you're parking, radar, time of flight.
OK, so what happens if I walk in front of it now? How's it going to get past me?
It will not - what would normally happen in this position is it - it will wait awhile, see if you move.
Excuse me, would you please let me pass?
So what if I'm some kind of prankster and I don't want let it pass?
So if you just stood there indefinitely, it will either try and get around you, and if it can't get around you, it's going to find a different way.
Find a different way, OK.
So the robot has mapped every single pavement in the local area, and if one of those pavements is blocked, it will find an alternative route.
How long would a robot like this take to deliver pizza compared to a traditional human driver on a moped? It's going to be slower, surely?
At the moment, it's a little bit slower, yeah. This robot is best suited for those very short distances.
There are other limitations as well, aren't there? It's got wheels and presumably it can't get to some addresses where there are stairs blocking its way.
So the robot can go anywhere where, say, someone in a wheelchair can go.
The robots, I'm told, are 99% autonomous. That means there are control sensors of human beings monitoring them in case something goes wrong.
The robot has the nine cameras. We had one occasion where someone was looking at the robot. We thought they might want to try and steal it. We sounded the alarm and they ran away immediately. When these incidents like that have happened the past, totally random humans have come to the robots aid to help out, which is really something quite amazing in this robot-human social interaction.
Aliya, meanwhile, can track the robot's progress on her smartphone. The pizza arrives at the FT after just 25 minutes. Aliya is then notified by an alert her phone and she collects her lunch without having to tip a rider. Starship's robots are already operating without human walkers in Estonia, in some towns in the US, and in Milton Keynes here in the UK.
Ahti Heinla is the co-founder, chief executive, and CTO of Starship. He's best known for co-founding the video call service Skype, but he has big plans for his delivery robots.
Next year, we will drive everywhere without people following robots.
So even in a densely populated urban area like - like London, this time next year, we may be seeing these things operating independently?
That's true. That's true. We will start scaling this year. In five years, there could be a million robots.
That's a big increase in Starship's global fleet, which today stands at just 150. Starship also says the business will be profitable in just three years. But are the company's ambitions realistic?
What if councils kick up a fuss about it operating on pavements? We've already seen councils who resist the bike sharing apps that have launched in the UK - dockless bikes - bikes that stand on pavements. They've objected on the basis that they're a nuisance. I think a lot of it will depend on what kind of clearance they get and how people respond to them. Currently, there are only 20 of these robots in London. When there are hundreds or thousands, the reaction might be quite different.
The robot turned heads, but people reacted positively to it - for now, at least. And some hurdles remain before we see fleets of them operating independently in busy cities across the world. Daniel Garrahan, Financial Times, London.