In as little as two years, small robots may be delivering packages to households, takeout and even medical supplies, thanks to a bipartisan North Carolina bill that is poised to be signed into law.
(TNS) — In as little as two years, small robots may be delivering your packages, takeout and even medical supplies, thanks to a bipartisan North Carolina bill that is poised to be signed into law.
The bill, which would authorize and regulate “small personal delivery robots” around the state, passed in the House on Wednesday in a near unanimous vote. The Senate voted Thursday to send the bill to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk, where he will decide whether to sign it into law.
Senate Bill 739 comes as a handful of other states have passed similar legislation, and as automated delivery robots have been delivering packages and food to some communities around the country.
For more than two years, the startup Kiwi Campus has operated food delivery robots at the University of California, Berkeley, delivering tens of thousands of orders, and just last year Amazon and FedEx each launched their own robot lines, automating delivery services in the final leg of a package’s journey.
Sen. Jim Perry, a Kinston Republican and sponsor of the bill, said he first learned about these robots from a FedEx representative at a business conference last year. He called this legislation and others like it a “pilot program,” and said that with the “technology centric nature” of the Research Triangle it made sense to implement something similar in North Carolina.
Coronavirus gives robot deliveries ‘new meaning’
Perry added that the COVID-19 pandemic had heightened the importance of these robots, as they would allow for contactless deliveries and could easily be sanitized.
“It took on a whole new meaning,” he said. “There are hospitals now that are using delivery devices for medications.”
But even if the legislation is signed into law by Cooper, it will still be a while before robots are roaming North Carolina streets. The bill would not go into effect until December, and Perry said he expected it would take at least another year to begin rolling them out across the state.
“It’s not like we’re going to see 20,000 of them tomorrow in a city,” he said. “It will be a slower ramp up process.”
The bill imposes certain limitations on the delivery robots, like mandating they weigh fewer than 500 pounds, move at a speed of less than 10 miles per hour, yield to humans and not carry hazardous materials, among other regulations. Perry said these restrictions were intended to make the robots safer and keep people feeling comfortable.
In a statement over email, a FedEx spokeswoman said the company appreciated the support of the NC General Assembly in its passage of the bill, and looked forward to further testing of its devices in new areas.
For the first two years after the bill goes into effect, local governments will only be allowed to regulate the time and place of operation of the small delivery robots, but not prohibit their use. After two years, the bill allows local governments to prohibit their use if they find it necessary.
Perry said these limitations were in place to reduce variability and help measure the return on investment for the robots, but that local governments would always be able to opt out of using the devices.
Amid a quietly growing national nervousness over the automation of jobs, Perry said that he had heard some concerns about how the bill could impact delivery jobs. But he said he believed it would ultimately bring in more employment opportunities, creating new jobs to help design and implement the technology across the state.
He added that if the robots prove to be more efficient, the change would have been somewhat inevitable.
“Polaroid couldn’t prevent the evolution of film going to digital,” he said.
“It can’t do everything that a human can do. That’s impossible,” he continued. “But we do think it could help fill a gap, and people want things faster every day. We’re the microwave society.”
©2020 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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