FutureStructure

Robots May Deliver Central Ohioans' Pizzas in the Next Year or Two

A small change to Ohio law that was passed with recent budget legislation now allows such robotic delivery vehicles to operate on sidewalks across the state. In doing so, Ohio joins Wisconsin, Idaho, Virginia and Florida.

by JD Malone, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio / July 11, 2017
Starting in September, some D.C. neighborhoods will get packages delivered by robots. (Starship Technologies)

(TNS) — It's got six wheels, a pop top, nine cameras and an orange flag lit with LEDs. It's 6D32, and it's coming to a sidewalk near you.

6D32 is a personal delivery device made by Starship Technologies. It's more or less a cooler on wheels with some whiz-bang technology tucked beneath a sleek, black-and-white plastic body.

Starship is an Estonian company, founded by the same guys behind Skype, that hopes to bring robotic delivery vehicles capable of transporting food, packages and other goods to cities everywhere.

A small change to Ohio law that was passed with recent budget legislation now allows such robotic delivery vehicles to operate on sidewalks across the state. In doing so, Ohio joins Wisconsin, Idaho, Virginia and Florida.

Starship has been testing its delivery fleet in Washington, D.C., and in parts of Europe.

In Columbus, Starship will be testing and demonstrating its six-wheeled cooler for the next week as it works to plot maps of the heart of the city and the Ohio State University area to use when full autonomous operation begins later this year.

"This is a natural extension of the unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) phenomenon, and has the attention of lots of people," said Steve DeNunzio, director of the Masters of Business Logistics Engineering program at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business. "The goal will be to scale it to the point where it's profitable."

It turns out that Columbus is a target market for Starship's bots, thanks in large part to Ohio State's presence and relative lack of high-rise buildings. The robots don't climb stairs, and elevators can be a challenge.

"That's why we're here," said Allan Martinson, chief operating officer of Starship. "Low to mid-rise cities and college campuses, that is our natural habitat."

The company is also hoping to find partners that want to use its robots, such as delivery services, restaurants and others.

Starship already works with Postmates in the U.S. and is working with Domino's Pizza in Germany to test the robots. It might have 6D32s carting deliveries around the University District by September, although the rollout could take as long as early 2018, Martinson said.

Starship charges per delivery, with the goal of bringing its cost down to about $1.

"We are not there yet," Martinson said.

The way this works is that Starship subcontracts a fleet, about 10 robots, to a delivery service and engages some local personnel to handle and maintain the fleet.

Deliveries are about 90 percent autonomous, with the robot using GPS and an array of cameras and other sensors to avoid pedestrians and navigate other obstacles. Remote drivers, watching via Internet hookups in Europe or California, take over when the robot must cross a street.

At a brief demonstration, handler Kendall Price piloted the robot with a modified Sony Playstation controller. It can turn and stop on a dime, trundle through rain and even snow, and tackle cold or hot climates.

The small robot, weighing a little more than 30 pounds, can carry 80 to 90 pounds of cargo and has a 1- to 2-mile range.

It has three uses, Martinson said: delivering food from restaurants, small orders from groceries and packages from, say, FedEx or UPS. In more than 40,000 miles of testing with the robots, Starship has ironed out a lot of kinks and finds that most people pay little attention to the robots, he said.

DeNunzio cautioned that any unmanned vehicles, whether flying drones or Starship's robots, will come under scrutiny by regulators and consumers.

"One obstacle is adoption by consumers," DeNunzio said. "There's probably a research study available, but the informal polling of my students in class suggests that many of us are still not ready for service by aerial or ground-based drones, or autonomous vehicles like driverless cars.

"Consumers are concerned about things like safety, retaining control, as well as dealing with an unfamiliar business model."

Much of the business transaction will appear familiar though. When in use, mobile apps will allow customers to track the robot making its way to them, much as users do with Uber. When the trek is completed, customers receive a notice that the robot has arrived along with a link or code to open it.

The robot service raises a few questions. For example, what happens when some prankster decides to steal one?

The 6D32 has alarms, can take photos and video, is very hard to unlock and is basically a homing beacon for police, Price said. There is also a two-way radio on board to allow operators to talk to people near the bot.

A more important question: How much beer can it carry in its insulated belly?

"Enough," Price said.

As the robots evolve — the 6D32 is the fourth generation Starship has produced in just three years — and become widespread, they might need a new name.

"We are working on a name," Martinson said. "Any suggestions are welcome."

Anything other than Robot McRobotface.

©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.