FutureStructure

Robots to Deliver Groceries, Take-Out in Concord, Calif.

The robots will benefit local restaurants and burnish the city’s image as a hub for autonomous device testing.

by Lisa P. White, East Bay Times / July 14, 2017

(TNS) -- CONCORD — Autonomous robots bearing groceries, parcels and take-out soon will rove the streets of downtown Concord and, possibly, Walnut Creek.

The squat, black-and-white “personal delivery devices” travel on six wheels and use nine cameras to navigate sidewalks and cross streets on their delivery runs.

Founded by the brains behind Skype, Starship Technologies — which has offices in Europe, Washington, D.C. and Redwood City — approached Concord last month seeking permission to conduct a 12-month pilot program.

“Concord, as a city, is a great candidate for robot deliveries with the layout, pedestrian density and number of potential partners,” Starship Technologies spokesman Henry Harris-Burland wrote in an email.

Charmed by a robot that rolled into the council chamber with the mayor’s gavel tucked inside, on Tuesday city leaders embraced the opportunity to be a testing ground for the developing technology and approved the pilot program.

“When I was back in Washington, D.C. back in June, I literally had one of these run right past me,” Councilwoman Carlyn Obringer said. “So, I was kind of excited when I came back to Concord to hear that you were planning to test here. I look forward to seeing how all this plays out.”

In addition to testing its delivery robots in such cosmopolitan European capitals as London and Tallinn, Estonia, Starship Technologies has pilot projects in the heart of Silicon Valley in Redwood City, San Carlos and Sunnyvale.

The agreement with Concord marks its first foray into Contra Costa County. Next week, the Walnut Creek council is scheduled to consider striking a similar deal with the company.

Up to a dozen robots will operate in a four-mile area in Concord. Starship Technologies currently works with meal-delivery services DoorDash and Postmates. A thermal liner will keep food hot.

The robots will benefit local restaurants and burnish the city’s image as a hub for autonomous device testing, said Pedro Garcia, economic development specialist. GoMentum Station, an autonomous vehicle-testing facility, has operated on the former Concord Naval Weapons Station since 2014.

“I think this demonstrates how progressive and innovative Concord is becoming,” Garcia added.

At this point, the 25-pound robots are not completely autonomous. Initially, handlers will accompany the robots, which can travel at a top speed of 4 mph.

As the robots roam the sidewalks, the on-board cameras create a 3-D map of the area. The electric couriers are programmed to stop at driveways and crosswalks — that’s when the human operator takes control, company representative David Catania told the council.

“As we socialize the device into the community, that will allow us into the future to be 100 percent autonomous,” he said, adding that people will continue to monitor the robots remotely.

Customers place and pay for orders online and may use a mobile app to set up the delivery time and track the robots. When the robot arrives, the company sends a text with a link the recipient clicks to unlock it, Catania said.

If someone tries to pry open the robot or pick it up, the devices have several levels of security. If the sensors detect an obstacle, the device will alert the operator. If someone does manage to abduct a Starship robot, they are equipped with GPS that police can use to track them down.

“The good news is that with 40,000 miles traveled and 7 million human interactions in 73 countries we’ve not had a single theft and we’ve not had an issue of foul play,” Catania assured the council.

©2017 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.