Tiny self-driving robots have started delivering food on-demand in Silicon Valley - take a look
The robots have arrived, and they're here to work.On March 23, bots from Starship Technologies started taking over some of the work done by human couriers at on-demand delivery startup DoorDash. The self-driving robots ferry goods from restaurants in Redwood City, California, to customers within a two-mile radius.Advertisement
Starship Technologies, a London-based robotics company, aims to make on-demand delivery more efficient by having robots complete deliveries in congested urban areas, where driving can often be a challenge. The company claims its six-wheeled couriers can finish deliveries in as little as 15 to 30 minutes, traversing the streets of Silicon Valley with relative ease.
The startup faces competition from robotics company Dispatch, whose self-driving delivery robots were spotted learning the streets of San Francisco in February.We followed a Starship Technologies robot during its first day on the job to see how it works.
This is the delivery guy (or autonomous vehicle) of the future.
Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, cofounders of Skype and Starship Technologies, cut their teeth working on a robot that could collect rock samples on Mars and the moon.Advertisement
They later used the technology to develop this take-out robot. The startup raised $17 million in a funding round led by Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler in 2016.
We met up with a robot on its first day on the job in Redwood City's downtown center. An employee placed an order on the DoorDash app to get lasagna from The Spaghetti Factory.Advertisement
An algorithm built by DoorDash decides in real time if the delivery makes more sense for a human courier or a robot to complete. In this case, the restaurant was surrounded by wide sidewalks and was within a two-mile radius of the customer. The robot got the order!
Since setting up shop in Redwood City in January, Starship Technologies has mapped out a delivery zone with a two-mile radius. The robots moves in straight lines along this map, at speeds up to four miles per hour.Advertisement
It has nine cameras and ultrasonic sensors, which create an imaginary bubble around it. When an unmapped object, like a person or a construction cone, enters that bubble, the robot makes a split-second decision whether to make a complete stop or skirt around it.
During our trip, the robot arrived at a crosswalk without a traffic light. It didn't know when it was safe to cross. So the robot pinged a human at Starship Enterprises for help.Advertisement
We also encountered a construction zone. The robot proceeded with caution, gliding over broken road and around the excavation site with ease.
The robot's handler stood watch nearby. While the bots operate almost fully autonomously, they will be accompanied by humans to start so curious pedestrians can ask questions.Advertisement
The robot seemed to make friends wherever it went. A family with two girls asked to take a photo with it, while others snapped photos on their phones more discreetly.
Starship Technologies says its robots have encountered three million pedestrians to date — without incident. A robot will sound an alarm if someone attempts to kidnap it.Advertisement
About 15 minutes after we left the delivery hub, we arrived at The Spaghetti Factory.
A restaurant manager (who was alerted to the robot's arrival by the handler) came outside, popped the robot's lid, and placed the take-out bag inside an insulated bin.Advertisement
We made a speedy return to the delivery hub, where a customer hungry for lasagna waited.
The DoorDash app notifies the customer when the robot arrives and displays a button the user presses to unlock the lid. This way, no one else can walk away with their food.Advertisement
DoorDash has over 100,000 human couriers — and now six robots — making food deliveries across North America. The bots under its employment will increase to 12 in April.
Robots will never replace humans entirely, Tang says. He describes the robots as complementary to the company's existing delivery vehicles, such as bikes and cars.Advertisement
Plus, the robots will take over the shortest length deliveries, which Tang says human couriers don't enjoy doing because they provide the smallest tips. A robot that does the work no one else wants to do might just catch on.
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