Right now on Mars, NASA’s Curiosity Rover is busy surveying the planet’s surface, capturing photos of another world and ultimately trying to help us understand our place in the universe. Meanwhile, closer to home in Greenwich, there’s another robot that is trying to answer an equally complicated question: What’s for dinner?
— Ben Carter (@bensaint) November 28, 2016
On Monday, Starship Technologies’ delivery robot delivered a meal from local Turkish restaurant Taksim Meze to Simone, a hungry Just-Eat customer in the borough, in what could be a sign of things to come. Forget Amazon’s vision of drones above our heads - Starship, despite the name, is a much more down to earth affair.
Launched in 2014 by Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, the idea is that the robot will solve the “last mile” problem, of how to get whatever you’ve ordered - be it take-away, groceries, or parcels - to your front door, as cheaply as possible. So to get a glimpse of this possible future, I went along to the company’s London headquarters, in a tower close to the Millennium Dome, to take a look.
Navigation and Driving
I was first intrigued about the company after seeing a video of the robot in action. This isn’t an autonomous car - it's designed to run on the pavement. And though it can conceivably travel at up to 10mph, it is software limited to 4mph. The idea is that it will plod along, without getting in the way of traffic. But this made me ask an obvious question: How on earth does it work?
Navigating the roads, as Elon Musk and co are increasingly able to demonstrate, is a relatively straightforward affair. The road has certain rules that everyone adheres to - meaning that other vehicles behave predictably. You know, for instance, that everyone will drive on the left. On top of this, autonomous cars have a lot of data and intelligence they can plug into: Roads have been extensively mapped by the likes of Google and Uber - meaning that all of the important obstacles and road markings are already digitally coded. But the pavement? That’s the wild west. People weave all over the place, and move at different speeds, and so on.
It turns out that Starship has figured out a clever solution this hardest of tech problems: Humans.
The company tells me that the intention is to eventually make 99% of deliveries fully automated - with the last 1% of navigation the responsibility of remote teams of operators, for making tricky decisions about unexpected obstacles or difficult situations. It sounds as though it will work a bit like a call centre - with bots that find themselves stuck or stationary for an extended period of time automatically being flagged up to people stationed in London, San Francisco or Thailand who can then figure things out. If they get really stuck, each robot is apparently also equipped with two-way voice communication capabilities for negotiating with perplexed pedestrians.
So how are they getting the rich data necessary for mapping each neighbourhood? How will the robots know to avoid lampposts and potholes? Starship says that each robot is capable of collecting data from its array of cameras and sensors. Images are analysed by some proprietary “computer vision” software which analyses 1000 straight lines per second, and this adds to the fleet’s collective knowledge. This gives it, Starship claims, precision in movement and tracking down to just one inch. Once a bot has been driven around a neighbourhood once by a human operator, it should then be good to go it (mostly) alone.
Once up and running, Starship reckons that one operator will be able to manage 100 bots on their own. Though at the moment, as it is still only in the testing phase, operators are only supervising up to 3 robots each, and every road crossing is being handled manually, to ensure they are being operated safely. The only thing the robot can’t do is stairs - giving it something in common with the classic Daleks.
Each robot is fitted with nine cameras as well as obstacle sensors and infrared capabilities. They won’t, however, be using Lidar, the technology that is found is a lot of autonomous cars. Apparently while Lidar tech is good for seeing a long way in the distance, it has a very narrow field of vision - whereas these robots need to see all around their immediate surroundings instead.
Taking It For a Test Drive
Starship was kind enough to take one of their robots out for a quick run - albeit entirely on manual mode, presumably with someone back in the office driving. But it was still very cool to see - if you want to imagine what it is like when rumbling along a pavement, think a Mars Rover meets Thunderbird 2.
It was interesting to see the reactions of various other pedestrians to this alien machine in their presence. Some Londoners typically ignored it - but many people turned their heads. In an almost suspicious piece of good timing, a group of students from nearby Ravensbourne College spotted the robot, and subsequently said things like “cool dude”, like what young people say. They bombarded the PR guy with questions about who was controlling it. One student, who was basically a stereotypical cockney rudeboy (think Eggsy from Kingsman) seem to have his mind particularly thoroughly blown.
On the whole though, it was interesting to see how unreactive many people were to the presence of a robot. The company says that so far the robots have “met” over 2 million people during both phases of testing. Similarly, so far, there have been no attempts by anyone to steal either the robots or the payload, though Starship does reckon it will inevitably happen as the company grows - which is why as well as the tracking gear, the robot also has a built in alarm.
Robots vs Reality
So… could it actually work? Is there a viable business in there, or is this just fantasy? To be honest, I went into the meeting with them relatively sceptical - but having heard the full story, I’m starting to believe.
“The delivery industry is often not profitable”, Starship’s spokesperson argued, claiming that the likes of Amazon, Deliveroo and UberEats - all lose money on the delivery parts of their business. Starship reckons that while van delivery may be the most efficient method of transporting goods over the last 10 miles, robots can be more efficient for the last 2. And it is Starship’s objective to reach a point where an “on-demand” delivery with a robot can cost as little as £1, or $1, or €1, for every shipment. The company hasn’t quite made it work that efficiently yet, of course, but that is the target in mind.
The company came out of what they call “stealth mode” last month, when they first unveiled the robot, and is now engaged in a second phase of testing with a number of commercial partners around the world. The robots are being trialled by Just-Eat here in London, Hermes in Hamburg, Swisspost in Bern, electronics retailer MediaMarkt in Dusseldorf, and the company is shortly planning to announce partners in Washington DC and Redwood, California. So far in testing, the robots have apparently collectively driven 132,000 miles in 16 different countries, in 58 different cities. Interestingly, much like Uber has discovered, Starship has found different countries and cities have radically different rules on whether you’re allowed to fire up your autonomous robot and send it racing down the pavement. In Austria, it turns out that it is a free for all, whereas in neighbouring Germany there are many more rules and regulations. In London, the borough of Greenwich has granted them permission for their tests.
So far, the company has built 70 prototype robots in its workshop in Talinn, Estonia, but plans to scale that up next year. What’s impressive though is how much they are costing to make.
“Anyone can build a 100-grand robot in a lab”, the spokesperson told me, and while he wouldn’t give me an exact figure, he said that the aim is to get each robot costing roughly the same as a high-end mobile phone. So I reckon that’s around the £800 mark - and doesn’t instinctively feel very pricey at all (the plastic shell, apparently, is one of the most expensive parts). The reason appears to be that the robot is taking advantage of the mobile components boom that has enabled phone technologies - such as miniaturised high quality cameras and chips - that has also powered the drone and Internet of Things booms.
The relatively low unit price makes sense for the business model: If there’s going to be thousands of these roaming our streets eventually, they will need replacing and will need maintenance, and no commercial partners are going to take a risk with something that would be very expensive if it were to be, say, hit by a car.
Whatsmore, the robots have a big advantage over the likes of Amazon’s delivery drones too: They don’t need to worry as much about weight. Each robot weighs 18kg and can cope with a 10kg payload, with a battery that lasts around 2.5 to 3 hours. And though these batteries should be plenty for short, sub-two mile deliveries, they could conceivably be swapped out for something of a larger capacity - there isn’t a technical problem of needing to minimise weight to contend with. The only reason for the current limit is because in this testing phase the company is sending a lot of robots around the world, and larger capacity batteries aren’t allowed on aeroplanes.
So could Starship’s robots be the future? There’s still a lot that the company would need to figure out.
Take just London for example, if the capital is to be crawling with these robots, then it will require human employees to maintain them, and maintenance hubs dotted around the city. The intention is apparently to build hubs so that batteries can be automatically swapped, so robots can head straight back out - but as of yet, none of these have been built.
Given that the robots will still be partially human operated, and given the maintenance needs, if the company scales as it hopes, it will require hundreds or thousands of new employees at ground level and in operations centres to keep the fleet moving. (Starship assures me that employees will be properly employed, rather than Uber-style “private contractors”, because of the skills required to maintain and drive).
And for the user, it isn’t yet clear what the user experience will be like for when you fire up Just Eat. Will you be given the choice of a robot or human delivery? Will you be able to track your delivery inside of the client app or will you have to use a special Starship app?
But ultimately, it seems like robot deliveries could soon become a thing. It has always been hard to imagine Amazon’s drone vision becoming a reality - especially in a dense city like London (how many of us have gardens that a drone could land in?). But robots? After seeing Starship’s robot in action, I think I could start to believe it.