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Autonomous Delivery Robots to Hit Redwood City, Calif., Streets in December

On the whole, autonomous robot delivery could significantly reduce a city’s traffic congestion, as a single robot takes as many as 10 cars off the road.

Various reports have surfaced in the past year about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) delivering packages and take-out to your door — but some options are closer to the ground, literally. And one Silicon Valley city is jumping to test out this new technology, considered the newest frontier in automated delivery.

Redwood City, Calif., recently passed a city resolution (PDF) for a nine-month pilot program in which Starship Technologies works with parcel delivery, grocery and food delivery firms who will use its autonomous robots to carry out the deliveries. As a demonstration for the city, the robot delivered a box of cookies from a local bakery. 

The company has run pilot programs in London; Düsseldorf, Germany; Bern, Switzerland; and Washington, D.C. When looking to expand to the West Coast of the United States, what ultimately sealed the deal for Starship Technologies was the enthusiasm in Redwood City, which will serve as the “primary pilot program for Starship Technologies in the United States,” according to a city report.

The current program is designed to support two delivery hubs that monitor 10 robots each. The first deliveries will be made in early December, and the robots will deliver one package per hour, scheduled by the receiving party for whenever they like. Although not there yet, the company is working to make the robots 99 percent autonomous, capable of sending information to a central hub if it comes across something it does not understand.

The company estimates that deliveries could take five to 30 minutes from a local hub or retail outlet — 10 to 15 times less than the cost of current last-mile delivery alternatives.

The six-wheeled robots will travel on city sidewalks, obeying crosswalk signals, moving out of the way for pedestrians and deliver goods door-to-door. Weighing about 40 pounds, the delivery devices are installed with nine cameras that will help them navigate the neighborhood and recognize people, animals and other mobility aides such as wheelchairs and scooters. They are designed to travel mostly on sidewalks, although they can negotiate small curbs.

"We’re very excited," said Redwood City Economic Development Manager Catherine Ralston. “We saw this as an opportunity to show the tech world … that we are open to new technologies.”

Often lumped in with Palo Alto, Mountain View or Silicon Valley as a whole, Redwood City hopes this program will help itself stand out among the crowd. Being able to attract partnerships such as this is key to drawing investment and enticing small businesses to work closely with the city.

The small town feel combined with an urban downtown made Redwood City the ideal location for the pilot. But it was more than just city features that brought the company to town — being open to new technology and embracing automated vehicle progress was what really drew Starship Technologies to the jurisdiction.

“Redwood City, from day one, was incredibly-intuitive, forward thinking, proactive and enthusiastic,” said company spokesperson Henry Harris-Burland, adding that autonomous robot delivery could significantly reduce a city’s traffic congestion. “One single robot takes as many as 10 cars off the road,” he said.

The possibilities are endless. Showing that automated delivery is possible could disrupt the entire parcel delivery industry and save families about an hour per day on running out to grab groceries.

As for the program's future, Ralston claimed the city would love for it to extend beyond the nine-month pilot period, and city officials already are thinking about additional possibilities. “Our library is looking into using Starship," she said, "and would love to use it for delivering books people put on hold.”

Ralston's mindset is exactly what Starship is looking for.

“We want people to want our robots,” said Harris-Burland. “We are very excited to see the results from this program.”

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.

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