Starship Technologies, a robotics startup created by two of Skype’s founders, is launching what it’s claiming to be a world’s first today: a commercial, autonomous, ground-based robotic package delivery service.
If that just made you blurt out “huh?,” let us recap.
Founded out of Estonia in 2014 by Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, Starship Technologies has launched myriad autonomous delivery trials, covering food and other small packages, in dozens of cities around the world. Rather than using airborne drones as many companies, such as Amazon, are doing, Starship Technologies has built a bunch of ground-traversing robots that maneuver along sidewalks entirely of their own volition. However, they can also be monitored and controlled remotely by humans if the situation requires it.
There are a few other players in the field, perhaps most notably San Francisco-based Marble, which recently closed a $10 million round of funding.
Earlier this year, Starship Technologies launched a large-scale commercial meal delivery service aimed at corporate and academic campuses in Europe and the U.S. At launch, the program was run partly in conjunction with food service giant Compass Group, kicking off at Intuit’s Mountain View campus, where workers could order food through Starship’s mobile app and have the robot bring the food to them.
Now, Starship Technologies is launching a package delivery service that promises to deliver all manner of goods directly to people’s doors.
How it works
Through the Starship Deliveries mobile app, which is available on Android and iOS, consumers sign up to receive a unique personal address which they put in place of their own address when ordering goods online.
A typical address format will look something like the following, with the 5-character identifier after “Starship” at the top negating the need for the buyer to put their own name on the address:
2 Pimlico Court
The sender (e.g. Amazon or an eBay seller) then puts that unique address on the package, which is delivered through the usual mailing system to a local facility that is managed by Starship Technologies.
For this privilege, consumers pay £7.99 ($10) per month for an unlimited number of package deliveries, though the first month is free.
Consumers are notified via the app when their package has arrived at the facility, and they can then choose a specific time for one of Starship’s robots to deliver it to their desired location. They can also track the robot’s journey in real time via the app.
For now, Starship’s robots can deliver to homes within a 2-mile radius of the depot, though it is working to expand this to cover a wider area.
An obvious question many people will ask relates to the security of the robots, given that they’re entirely autonomous. Well, the lids are locked and the robots are equipped with cameras, sensors, and an alarm, while they can also be tracked to the nearest inch, according to the company. It also said that an alert is automatically sent to Starship if a robot deviates from its original journey, or if it stops unexpectedly for a period of time. That all sounds great, but it’s still not too difficult to imagine how some creative minds could easily intercept these machines and negotiate their way inside the robots before anyone has time to respond to an alarm.
Additionally, the robots are not particularly large, meaning you won’t be able to get massive products delivered to your house through Starship. And herein lies a potential problem: How can you know for sure whether a product that you buy online will fit inside the little robot? Clearly, fridges and sofas are off the agenda, but there are other, more borderline items that may be difficult to determine if they will fit inside.
A spokesperson told VentureBeat that customers will initially be able to “order anything” without worrying — Starship will get the package to the consumer one way or another. But over time, it will put some protections in place to help the consumer determine the feasibility of using Starship for a particular product.
For some, however, there will be little benefit to be gained from signing up to use Starship — many people would probably prefer to just put down their work address when ordering a package and save themselves another monthly subscription. But for those unable to give an alternative address, or who are never sure when they’re going to be at home, it could prove to be a popular service.
“Today more than ever, people lead busy and diverse lives,” noted Starship Technologies CEO Lex Bayer. “The hassle of needing to re-arrange your life for a delivery will become a thing of the past. No more having to switch your working from home day, rescheduling meetings, visit a locker, drive to a sorting office or contact a courier all because of a missed delivery. Starship gets packages to consumers when and where they want them. This is the only service of its kind available in the world today, and it works around your lifestyle.”
Bayer joined Starship as CEO back in June, just as the company raised another $25 million, replacing cofounder Heinla at the helm.
For now, Starship’s new service is limited to a number of neighborhoods in Milton Keynes, a large town north of London in the U.K., but this precedes a much larger rollout that will include a package delivery service for some U.S. locales before the year is out. Plans are also afoot to bring this service to an as-yet-unnamed Mountain View campus next month, though based on Starship’s existing partnership with Intuit, that would be a good bet for this expansion.
“Consumers are in control — they choose when an order comes to their door and there’s no need to use a locker service to collect deliveries,” Bayer added. “We provide the locker and the delivery, saving time and making consumers’ lives easier.”