The Future of Delivery Robots

Although delivery robots were once a distant possibility, they are quickly becoming an everyday part of our lives. When I go for an evening run in Milton Keynes, England, I often see five to six of them!

Starship is the owner of these particular bots. Starship was founded three years ago. It now has over 1,000 autonomous delivery robots in operation in several locations across the UK, USA and soon, Europe.

Alastair Westgarth, their CEO, told me that the robots had traveled over 3.6 million km to make 2,000,000 deliveries. They are powered by machine-learning algorithms and they continue to get smarter. This makes them more efficient and safer.

The vast majority of these journeys can be completed autonomously, but humans are always available to assist if necessary. Westgarth explained to me that safety is our top priority. If a robot encounters an unusual situation, it will stop and alert our remote operators.

“Most often, they will tell you to proceed and let the robot go. This is 90% of interactions. They drive completely autonomously 99 percent of the time.

I am able to vouch for their confidence as I have witnessed it grow with my own eyes. They would stop moving if they were near me when they first appeared on the streets. They are now able to navigate on their own and I can see them making small adjustments to their course to avoid me getting in my way.

Robots are equipped with sensors. These sensors include radar and cameras with machine Vision. They also have ultrasonic sensors to detect solid objects such as curbs and walls. The robots cross over 80,000 roads each day. At first, all of these tasks were performed by humans. As the robots gained more information about their environment, almost all of them are now done autonomously.

We’ve driven over 3.6 million kilometers so it’s quite a lot of ground. They’re constantly learning, our autonomy today is orders-of-magnitude greater.”

One topic that we cannot ignore when discussing robots is their potential impact on human jobs. The threat of delivery robots to human employment is clear. While many people react to this by suggesting that humans could do better with their brains than making deliveries, these jobs still allow people to make a living and provide support for families.

Westgarth stated that Starship Enterprises will create more jobs than it will take away.

“We are convinced that if we bring in more technology to make the experience more efficient, and more valuable, then we will increase the number of jobs. We are migrating jobs, and we hope that the amount of jobs we create will offset the loss of jobs by autonomous delivery. History shows that efficiency and autonomy lead to a growing economy and more jobs. An obvious example is the fact that stagecoach drivers are not needed anymore, but car drivers are.

“At the end, there will be more people taking charge of our robots, providing services to merchants we deliver for, programming our software and developing our apps on tablets and phones. According to Westgarth, although employment is expected to change, we expect it will increase.

Starship’s robots work at the “last mile” of the delivery process, which is actually the last one to three kilometres. This includes delivering goods to restaurants, supermarkets, and take-out food outlets. The delivery and logistics industry also deals with long distance domestic and international deliveries. This is where automation will have a major impact. There are autonomous shipping, delivery vans and aerial drones on the horizon. I had the chance to ask Westgarth about Starship’s place in this picture and how society will adapt to autonomous delivery.

He tells me that Sprinter van levels are not in our plans. They will only be able to travel ten or twenty kilometers. There is a demand for it and ways to deliver it. However, all of the current manual work is still required. It will probably become more autonomous in future. Multi-modal delivery is difficult to scale economically. It’s easier to scale last-mile delivery with an autonomous approach.

“We are trying to deliver goods as efficiently and effectively as possible – where we add to the value chain rather than taking away. It’s a bright future. We’ll see autonomous cars delivering goods on the roads, more pedestrians, and other options such as drones. We want to be a part of that future.

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