Starship delivery robot. Photos by Starship. Text by Toivo Tänavsuu / Eesti Ekspress.
Estonian company Starship Technologies is building some revolutionary delivery robots which have already started cruising the sidewalks in Estonia, Britain and will soon the U.S. The company is relying on a number of impressive friends and fans to help with their PR.
Last November brought some fascinating news from Estonia: led by the co-founders of Skype Ahti Heinla and Dane Janus Friis, a team of Estonian engineers have created an autonomous delivery robot the size of a shopping basket. According to the concept, those robots will deliver everything from shopping bags to internet purchases, pizzas and many other things, freeing us from wasting time and energy on such daily chores.
Over the week since the news broke on 2 November, nearly a thousand publications and more than a hundred television stations from all over the world, including CNN, BBC and The New York Times, have been talking about this Estonian miracle on wheels.
Hundreds of businesses have approached the company with the question: when can we buy it? Chief Operating Officer Allan Martinson says that his inbox has come to resemble Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: letters from places as diverse as shopping centres, launderettes, bakeries, movie producers, amusement parks and golf courses. The robot has even been invited to feature in a sci fi movie. And perhaps the crowning glory, the US rapper Snoop Dogg announced online that he wants to buy one immediately.
Work on the robot started in 2014 but the company managed successfully to keep it under wraps. The six-wheeled ‘shopping baskets’ may be stylish and cute, but where are they allowed to drive? And is it possible to lower the price of an autonomous robot enough that it can reach the masses (the aim is to bring the cost of delivery below $1)?
Bold vision: no more home cooking
‘I’d like to take 150-200 robots as quickly as possible with perhaps 10 000 in the future!’ says James Poulter, CEO of the London-based food delivery company Pronto.co.uk to Eesti Ekspress. ‘As fast as possible. Pronto brings fresh warm meals to London homes and offices within 20 minutes. Starship would mean so much more than just cheaper home deliveries,’ says Poulter.
‘Supermarkets will run out of clients. People will no longer need kitchens at home. Nobody will need to clean their own water anymore - it will all be done centrally. In London almost nobody has their own car anymore – it is too expensive, everyone takes public transport. In the same way, it will no longer make sense to cook at home. Or to spend 100 000 pounds on building a kitchen. Starship will deliver a tasty and high-quality meal straight to your door – and much cheaper than going to the supermarket,’ envisions Poulter.
Friis and Heinla, who became multi-millionaires with Skype, teamed up with serial entrepreneur Allan Martinson who runs the business side of the company. In Britain the ambassador for the delivery robot is a former MP with Estonian roots, Lembit Öpik.
In autumn, Öpik took Starship to the UK Parliament at Westminster, where dozens of MPs and several government members took the chance to find out more about it.
And last week the robot participated in a promotional event at the German Bundestag. Öpik says: ‘Starship gives people back the time which they currently spend on shopping.’
Starship at the British Parliament in London winning new fans. From left: MPs Nigel Evans and Mary Robinson, Ahti Heinla and Allan Martinson from Starship Technologies and the British politician with Estonian roots, Lembit Öpik.
Legislation can both impede and support
Legislation on the movement of robots on pedestrian streets varies from country to country and, in the USA alone, from one state to another. Actually in most countries there is no relevant legislation as, for example, the British traffic legislation dates back 180 years. In Germany robots will need special permission to cruise on pavements and but in neighbouring Austria they are already completely legal.
According to Martinson, Starship can operate freely in a market of approximately 150 million people today, in other areas two questions need to be solved: the robot has no driver inside (at best it would fit a hamster but not a human being!) and it traverses pavements, crossing streets like a pedestrian (so should cars give way, for instance?).
One of the more pressing questions for the Starship team was where to look for examples in finding their way through the legislative maze. They discovered that more than ten years ago another company faced a very similar legal challenge – the well-known two-wheeled scooter Segway was similarly a new class of device with no clear regulations governing it. So the Starship team met the creator of Segway, legendary American inventor and businessman Dean Kamen, who became a big fan of Starship. In the USA, it is the same team which helped bring Segway onto the roads which is now making way for Starship.
On that side of the pond, the Estonians are being supported by the former US Congressman Charles Bass. According to him, before Segway, nobody could imagine that vehicles other than bikes or wheelchairs would be able to travel on sidewalks. Officials were afraid of the new vehicles. For example, the famous New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, announced that Segways would never drive on the streets of that city. Legislators were tempted to classify Segway as a motor vehicle (which would have meant the need for airbags etc.) and to ban its use on public sidewalks.
After three to four years of heavy lobbying, Segway was welcome in most states. Thus Starship could hardly have found itself a better advocate in America.
Bass cannot rule out that various interest groups, such as people with disabilities, delivery companies or even pet owners, will be opposed to Starship on the streets. So there is a need to be prepared to do a lot of advocacy.
In just half a year, the Estonian robots have driven over a thousand test miles: in Mustamäe in Tallinn, London, Boston and San Fransisco. In Mustamäe, Starship has its own one hectare large testing polygon – an artificial city with pavements, lights and other things.
It is planned to increase the test kilometre count to over 40 000 by the summer. This testing is just as intensive as Google with its self-driving cars.
Robot likes a low-density town
The tests observe how people relate to the robots and, surprisingly enough, most do not pay any attention to it passing. Martinson confirms that not a single case of anti-robot behaviour has been detected. On the contrary, there have been attempts to pet it, to feed it and to hug it.
The impression that it is easy to steal the Starship itself or the package locked under its cover, is a false one. ‘At any precise time when a thief is trying to get to grips with the robot, he is being observed by nine cameras, his location is known and the robot operator is able to “talk” to him via the speakers,’ explains Martinson. ‘Other robots in the vicinity will then come to help, a drone will fly overhead and soon the police will arrive. Hence if anyone wants to steal something, it is easier for a would-be thief to smash in a car window.’
Ahti Heinla confirms that Starship plans to be the first autonomous vehicle in the world’s public space. Autonomous cars still have a long way to go. Not only that but delivering post by drones seems also to be questionable: if a drone falls for instance, it may injure someone. But Starship is slow, light and safe: it can even drive over your foot and nothing will happen.
‘All of us have a suitcase at home and we do not particularly consider it to be a life-threatening object,’ says Martinson by way of comparison. ‘Drones also have their advantages: they can fly over sea and land. Starship is not meant for longer distances than five kilometres. So to bring aspirin and a beer from Tallinn to Kiisa would be better done with a drone,’ he explains.
Starship was born after Heinla and Estonian engineers participated at the NASA moon robots competition. After returning from the competition in the USA in summer 2014, he met his old friend Friis in London and thought about how to change the world of robotics for the better. Bringing samples of rock from far away planets (a task at the NASA competition) was fun, but has no impact on ordinary people.
‘We found that robots could be much more useful in agriculture, cleaning and package delivery,’ says Heinla. ‘In the case of cleaning it seemed difficult to come up with something better than a robot vacuum cleaner. We do not know much about agriculture. But everyone has some experience of package delivery.’
Starship is not suited to drive around in every city. It would get in the way of the vast crowds in Calcutta or Mumbai. Even the city centre of Tallinn is not so robot-friendly at peak hours. The ideal town for Starship is low-density, where the robot is not passed by more than three people per minute.
As the robot will just be delivering the package to the front of the address and not bring it up in an elevator or staircase, it would be pretty strange to order a pizza in a Hong Kong high-rise and to then discover that the whole front of the building is full of robots.
Starship robots, which still do not have a name (the name competition is ongoing, personal names rather than appliance names are being looked for), will start to offer pilot services in many countries this year.
So why not have your groceries delivered home and the newspapers taken to you by a robot?!
LET’S GET ACQUAINTED: THE STARSHIP ROBOT
> Developed by Starship Technologies, founded by Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis. The company employs approximately fifty staff in Tallinn and London, about twenty of which are Estonian engineers.
> The robot weighs 15-18 kg (it is hoped to reduce the weight to 10 kg), and drives up to 6 km/h.
> The equipment includes 6 wheels (it can drive over curbs up to 15 cm), 9 cameras (giving it 360 degree vision), GPS, microphone, speaker and internet connection. A 1.5 metre illuminated banner makes the robots visible to cars.
> Senses an approaching car from the distance of 100-200 metres.
> Drives autonomously up to 99 per cent of the time, though the working area needs to be mapped carefully before. Energy-efficient and totally harmless to the environment.
> Fits 2-3 shopping bags, 10-13 kg goods in total.
> Makes the so-called last kilometres delivery services up to 15 times cheaper in comparison with courier services (couriers drive big diesel vehicles, stopping at every house, the robot literally puts wheels under the package itself).
> The market is estimated to be huge: 20 billion packages are sent in Europe and America annually and 130 billion visits are made to a store (often a shop which is near the home).