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Crisis Gives Delivery Robots a Chance to Prove Their Worth

A fleet of autonomous delivery vehicles has been deployed in Fairfax, Va. Until now, a time when human interaction is discouraged to slow the spread of COVID-19, the robots have been regarded as novelty or convenience.

Fairfax City Shot
A small autonomous delivery device by Starship Technologies operates in Fairfax, Va.
Courtsey photo/ Starship Technologies
The COVID-19 crisis seems to be jettisoning real-world uses of autonomous technology. Wheeled robotic cargo devices will begin delivering food from restaurants in Virginia.

Starship Technologies is deploying a fleet of 20 autonomous “on-demand robots” Friday in Fairfax, Va. The devices will deliver food and groceries from a handful of restaurants and markets in and around the small city's downtown area.

The robots travel via city sidewalks and move about 4 mph, “and typically make deliveries in a three to four mile radius,” said Henry Harris-Burland, vice president of marketing at San Francisco-based Starship Technologies. The devices are controlled remotely, can travel in rain or snow, and have human operators ready to take over their operation. 

“We like to frame ourselves as being very innovative and forward thinking when it comes to trying new things to help grow our local economy. And so, this had been on my radar, but it really bubbled to the top, and this is an opportunity to try something right now,” Fairfax Economic Development Director Christopher Bruno said.

The autonomous devices have separate insulated areas for hot and cold items, and are equipped with cameras, sensors and other technology to help them glean traffic patterns, curb-cuts and other information about the built urban environment.

“They’re able to really take food from restaurants and deliver it to the front door of residents that are ordering food through their app,” said Bruno. 

“There’s no better time to be trying something like this, in a time when we’re discouraging human contact, which is sad to say, but this is the type of program that actually reinforces that,” he added.

Users must download the Starship app, where they can select and order items, and then set where the order should be delivered. Shoppers can also follow the vehicle ferrying their goods via an icon making its way across a map of the area.

“The robots travel on sidewalks and are battery operated, which helps relieve traffic congestion and also avoids the pollution from vehicles,” said Harris-Burland.

When the robot arrives, shoppers receive an alert, and then unlock the device via the app. “The delivery usually takes just a matter of minutes, depending on the menu items ordered and the distance the robot must travel,” read a company press release.

Starship operates in five countries, and has mostly traveled across college campuses in the United States. Its devices have logged 100,000 commercial deliveries, traveled 500,000 miles and crossed 5 million streets around the world, according to company officials.

Autonomous technology was also recently put to work in Florida where small autonomous shuttles are used to transport COVID-19 tests at the Mayo Clinic. And Refraction AI, began testing its small autonomous delivery vehicles in Ann Arbor, Mich., more than a year ago.

“We’re going to monitor it very heavily. … But I want the businesses to know that we’re there supporting them, and I think they’re feeling that through this trial,” said Bruno in Fairfax.

Businesses are charged a small delivery fee for using the service. However, the city is giving Starship a $10,000 “incentive support grant.” The funds are to be used to eliminate or reduce the commission charged to the restaurants.

“While it [the grant] goes to a business, the purpose is to reduce the cost to the [Fairfax] business community in general,” Bruno explained.

Starship has recently a launched similar service in Mountain View and Irvine, Calif.; Tempe, Ariz.; and Washington, D.C.

The coronavirus crisis has rattled the lives of residents and businesses worldwide, as local governments have scrambled to assemble rescue and other aid measures for local businesses. A project to launch a fleet of robot delivery vehicles would normally take months to plan and deploy, said Bruno.

“We’re essentially pulling this together in a little under two weeks,” he remarked.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.