Starship electric sidewalk-delivery robot a hit at DC Auto Show

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What would you do if a small, knee-high box on wheels with a flag topping its tall antenna whirred toward you electrically on a sidewalk at 4 miles per hour?

It turns out three-quarters of the pedestrians in several cities who've seen one didn't stop or even stare as it avoided them and continued on its way.

That box is an electric sidewalk delivery robot, and the British company Starship Technologies now has 75 to 80 of them testing in 59 cities in 16 countries, including the U.S.

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A demonstration of the robot delivery boxes was an unexpected hit of last week's Washington Auto Show media days, and one of few newsworthy stories at that event.

Billed as "The Policy Show," in most years, the D.C. press days usually offer announcements from government agencies, nonprofits, and automakers about new initiatives and/or regulatory matters.

This year, the show was close to a parched wasteland as far as policy went. Virtually no speaker wanted to go on record saying anything new about policy, and most just reiterated previously released documents or statements.

Electric sidewalk delivery robot from Starship Technologies at 2017 Washington DC Auto Show

Electric sidewalk delivery robot from Starship Technologies at 2017 Washington DC Auto Show

Enlarge Photo

So the fast-paced presentation by Starship's marketing and communications manager, Henry Harris-Burland, drew a crowd of journalists and perhaps more questions than any other press event.

Harris-Burland stood in the middle of a square area in which a pair of the sidewalk robots whizzed around, starting, stopping, and turning without colliding with him, the stanchions, or any onlookers.

They are, he said, 99 percent autonomous.

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But for unfamiliar or complex situations, including at the moment crossing roads, they ask for help from a human operator in a centralized facility who has access to the robot's four sensors and nine cameras, and can direct it what to do next.

That model is similar to one several automakers, including Audi, suggested would prevail for early autonomous or self-driving cars as well.

The six-wheeled robots can carry up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of cargo, equivalent to three or four full shopping bags, and the battery lasts for roughly 4 miles, or two hours.

Electric sidewalk delivery robot from Starship Technologies

Electric sidewalk delivery robot from Starship Technologies

Enlarge Photo

The three prime uses are expected to be deliveries for groceries, prepared food, and general parcels.

Deploying electric sidewalk delivery robots accomplishes several goals: it gives small local businesses access to the speedy delivery offered by larger competitors.

It cuts traffic congestion by removing much larger delivery vehicles from the streets, and it cuts emissions because the vast majority of those vehicles today are diesel-powered.

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Harris-Burland got a laugh from the crowd when he suggested the company was really "quite offended" when it turned out that pedestrians largely ignored the robots.

They're designed to resist vandalism, with a lock on the cargo bay that can only be released by the buyer (through a mobile-phone app) and alarms that go off if the robot is lifted off the ground.

It's been tested in "torrential rains" and up to 2 inches of snow, which its heavily treaded tires can traverse, he said—noting that perhaps one could be fitted with a snow plow.

Electric sidewalk delivery robot from Starship Technologies

Electric sidewalk delivery robot from Starship Technologies

Enlarge Photo

Its GPS sensor lets the company track the robot's position to within inches, Harris-Burland said.

Starship would like ultimately to "offer our services to every local business in the United States," he said, with a goal of on-demand delivery at a cost of $1.

Whether the buyer or the business pays that, and how much Starship gets, would depend on the business arrangements with users, he suggested.

The tests in various cities are still a pilot program, he said, and Starship isn't yet offering delivery robots as a commercial service.

They're already being tested by the Swiss postal service for special mail and rapid parcel delivery.

In Washington, D.C., the Starship electric delivery robots will be tested by the Postmates on-demand delivery service.

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