Autonomous robots are already delivering takeaways, thanks to startup Starship, with a little human assistance. Co-founder Ahti Heinla explains why the robots need a helping hand right now.
Missed deliveries are a frustrating part of modern life for individuals, while companies lament the cost of shipping deliveries to our doors. Solutions abound, including the oft-discussed delivery drones dropping Amazon Prime packages from the sky, but one Estonian startup has a more grounded answer: delivery robots.
Sorry couriers, but if Starship co-founder and CEO Ahti Heinla has his way then automatons will be edging in on your jobs too – and as one of the founders of Skype, Heinla knows what he’s doing. The robots are already being trialled in England with food deliveries from Just Eat.
We spoke to him on the sidelines of a launch with Mercedes that will see the Starship robots carted around by specially fitted Sprinter vans, letting delivery drivers drop off a dozen packages at once without leaving their vehicle.
Have you started actual deliveries to customers yet?
We have started… we’re in active service right now. We’re still at the early stages so it isn’t like we have done a million deliveries yet. We will, in a short amount of time.
How often is it necessary for humans to step in and help?
Our target is to get it to 1% of the time that operator help is used. Right now it’s more, but it’s an engineering goal to reduce that, although we actually don’t need to get to 1% to get to commercial viability. [Right now] it’s less than 50% of the time, but I can’t give you an exact number since it depends on the areas. For example, in Tallinn, Estonia, I think the regular tests are 85% or 90% [autonomous], but then in a big city where we’re testing slightly different things – like the hardware and how people react to it in public – it might be 10% or 20%.
How do people react to a robot delivery person at their door?
They’re very friendly towards the robots. That’s one of the key points that we wanted to verify when starting our test programme and driving them on real sidewalks. We have driven 12,000 kilometres by now, so that’s a lot. And we’ve found that the vast majority of people don’t pay attention to the robot, they ignore the robot, which is a very good thing. This wouldn’t work in practice in everyday life if people were paying a lot of attention and making a big deal out of the fact that there’s a robot.
When we founded Starship two years ago, we were thinking: “what if people call the police when they see a robot?”. We’ve encountered many people in those 12,000 kilometres and nobody has called the police. The reception has been positive and our robot has been received as a friendly device – people like it.
During the trial programme we still have people walking with the robot… and that’s one reason why we’re not having to notify people [that their delivery is coming via robot]. That’s because, if anyone has a problem with the robot, the person walking with it could help. But the people who have had their deliveries done with the robot are generally pleasantly surprised. They call it cute.
Did you design it to be cute to help encourage acceptance of robotic deliveries?
Of course, yes! We spent a lot of time on the design and thought very hard about the perception of the robot by pedestrians. We were seriously thinking that people would call the police. Obviously, we wanted to design the robot in a way that wouldn’t happen, that people would accept the robot. We seem to have been successful with that.
Call us paranoid, but have any customers attacked one of the robots?
We haven’t had that, but I’m sure everything will happen at least once. Our current experience with the pilots and our testing programme has shown that it isn’t a major problem.