Food & Drink

Want packages delivered via robot? There's an app for that

A drone, made by CyPhy Works, carries a UPS package on Children's Island off the coast of Beverly, Massachusetts, U.S. September 22, 2016, during UPS's demonstration of a drone making a commercial delivery of a package to a remote or difficult-to-access location. Picture taken September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder  - RTSP3UF
A drone, made by CyPhy Works, carries a UPS package on Children's Island off the coast of Beverly, Massachusetts, U.S. September 22, 2016, during UPS's demonstration of a drone making a commercial delivery of a package to a remote or difficult-to-access location. Picture taken September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RTSP3UF

WASHINGTON — If you live in Washington, D.C., or in Redwood, Calif., you may have glimpsed a small, boxy robot rolling along a local sidewalk, minding it’s own business, but attracting the attention of many a curious onlooker.

The autonomous machines — which look like the spawn of an Igloo Cooler and a slow cooker — were part of a pilot program by Starship Technologies focused on delivering meals from local restaurants in dozens of cities around the world last year.

This week, the company unveiled plans to broaden its delivery service beyond food to include packages, a move that led it to declare itself “the world’s first robot package delivery service.”

“Today, more than ever, people lead busy and diverse lives,” Lex Bayer, Starship’s chief executive, said in a statement online.

“The hassle of needing to rearrange your life for a delivery will become a thing of the past. No more having to switch your working from home day, reschedule meetings, visit a locker, drive to a post office or contact a courier all because of a missed delivery.”

The package delivery service is not available to everyone just yet. The company said it’s rolling out the service in Milton Keynes in Britain and will expand to the San Francisco Bay area in the next few months.

The company already has been doing food delivery with a fleet of about 20 delivery robots in Milton Keynes, according to the Telegraph.

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The wheeled robots have a top speed of four mph and can detect obstacles from as far as 30 feet away.

“The robot can operate through just about anything,” Nick Handrick, head of operations for Starship’s D.C. office, told the Washington Post last year.

“If you had something in the way — a stick, a curb — it’s able to climb curbs.”

By giving customers control of when deliveries occur, Starship Technologies is pitching its service as a way to combat package theft.

In its announcement, the company cited statistics from a Wakefield Research Poll for Comcast last year that found that three in 10 Americans who live in houses or town houses have had packages stolen.

The same poll found that 53 percent of Americans know someone who has been a victim of package theft.

To sign up for the service, which costs a little more than $10 per month, customers need to download the company’s app.

Customers then create a “Starship Delivery Address,” a unique address inside a company facility where they can have packages sent from places such as Amazon.com, instead of a residence.

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Once a package is delivered to the Starship address, customers receive a text notification that allows them to schedule a home delivery via robot.

(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post.)

The robots are opened by customers via a mobile phone code.

Starship Technologies was founded in Estonia in 2014 by two Skype founders.

The company’s robots present an alternative vision of the future of package delivery by companies such as Amazon, UPS and Google, which are betting on drone delivery from above.

Each company is looking for a cheaper solution to the “last mile” delivery problem — a product’s final path from warehouses to residents — which accounts for just over half of delivery costs, according to a report this year from Business Insider.

But before drone companies take off, companies must unravel a complex web of regulations that make drone delivery untenable.

Barriers exist for robotic ground delivery as well, with many states requiring that humans be in control of delivery robots.

Those regulations are beginning to loosen in some states, and haven’t stopped Starship Technologies from amassing experience on streets around the globe ahead of the company’s latest launch.

The company says its robots have covered more than 125,000 miles in 20 countries and more than 100 cities around the world.

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