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Why the future of package delivery is better than drones

Mike Elgan | Oct. 3, 2016
A drone alone can't make 'last-mile' home delivery scale. But robots can. Here's how.

Alternatively, the robot system can push the package through a window in the ceiling and into the "arms" of one of two rooftop drones, which then delivers the package to the customer's backyard. This enables faster delivery to homes that are far from the road, and makes it possible for two or three packages to be delivered at once (one by the driver and two by the drones).

Another use for the drone port is to deliver a package to the driver that was ordered for same-day delivery after the driver left the warehouse.

The robotic in-van warehousing system increases efficiency and cuts down on errors, theoretically. The launching of the drones from vans, rather than from the warehouse, cuts way down on the battery problem.

Taken further, you could imagine the rolling drone-base idea leading to large trucks rolling into neighborhoods and then dispatching a fleet of drones, delivery bots and humans to deliver many packages at once.

The self-driving ice chest idea

An Estonian company called Starship Technologies makes a robot that looks like an ice chest on wheels for delivering packages and food autonomously or semi-autonomously.

Starship co-founder Ahti Heinla, who was one of the original creators of Skype, told me that his delivery robot is inherently safe because it's light and slow (4 mph) and has software that causes it to get out of the way and stop when pedestrians are close. It's also safe because the robot is supervised remotely by humans, who can take over if the robot can't manage. In 8,000 miles of testing, the robots have "encountered" more than 1 million pedestrians and haven’t injured anyone, according to Heinla.

The robot is already being tested in Germany, San Francisco, London, Switzerland and elsewhere.

Starship delivery robots use nine cameras and GPS technology, as well as an internal navigation and mapping system, to get around on their own.

The robots deliver packages within three hours of an order being placed -- sometimes as quickly as 30 minutes afterward -- using public sidewalks, not streets, according to the company.

The process is a little like using Uber to hail a ride. People use an app to place the order. They can then track the robot on a map as it makes its delivery.

The package is locked in the robot, and a code supplied through the app enables users to unlock it to open the lid and get their packages.

Starship is also partnering with Mercedes on a concept called the Robovan, where special-purpose Mercedes vans serve as a "mothership" for up to eight Starship delivery robots. The van pulls over, and the Starship robots deliver the food or packages to multiple houses up to two miles away.


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