Starship robots take over package delivery on UK streets

You can expect to see the robots on the street delivering packages from today.

Robots are hitting the streets of the United Kingdom as a new delivery service launches today.

The robot deliveries are the work of Starship Technologies, a company founded in 2014 by Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis.

On Wednesday, Starship Technologies launched what the firm says is the "world's first commercial offering of autonomous package delivery" in Milton Keynes which aims to tackle the issue of late and missed deliveries.

According to the IMRG MetaPack Delivery Index, late deliveries are becoming an increasing problem in the United Kingdom, with the number of late deliveries doubling in recent years.

Robot delivery guys, which only come when customers call, are now an alternative to these traditional services.

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Already operating in the San Francisco Bay Area, the battery-powered vehicles have been put through their paces with grocery shops and lunchtime deliveries.

Each robot is equipped with 10 cameras which allow the robots to 'view' three-dimensional footage. Mapping technology, ultrasound sensors, radar, and GPS all combine with machine learning to direct how the robots should act on city streets and how to recognize both objects and potential hazards, such as cars or pedestrians.

Starship told ZDNet that Milton Keynes became the testbed for package delivery in the UK due to how city planners envisioned the city's sidewalks -- which is in a relatively modern fashion, considering the city's construction was approved only in 1967.

"We had to find somewhere to start and we were really impressed with the city's infrastructure," a Starship spokesperson told ZDNet.

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Starship Technologies

When users sign up to the Starship delivery service, they download either an iOS or Android mobile application. Users then assign an address for their parcels to be delivered, as well as receive a "personal address" which is a local facility managed by Starship.

In this way, the robots take over the last leg of a package's journey. Packages arrive at the facility and customers are alerted when their items arrive.

They then log into the app, select a time for delivery -- whether at home or at a workplace -- and the robot is suited up for the journey and sent on its way.

The robot's progress can be tracked by customers in real-time via the app.

The majority of the time the robots are "operating on their own," Starship says, but remote operators do keep an eye on their travels and are able to pull them out of trouble at any time -- such as if there is a previously unknown obstacle or the robot's path is hampered by construction.

To date, the robots have covered 125,000 miles in 20 countries.

Over 100 delivery robots are working for Starship worldwide, with between 10 and 20 now hitting the streets in Milton Keynes, depending on the time and how busy the day's schedule is.

"We're excited that thanks to our technology, local communities across Milton Keynes will never miss a home delivery again," said Starship CEO Lex Bayer. "Today more than ever, people lead busy and diverse lives [...] and Starship gets packages to consumers when and where they want them."

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At the moment, one robot is used for one delivery. In the future, the robots may be upgraded to include additional compartments for multiple deliveries, but the company says there is "no need" as yet to pursue this path.

Starship raised $25 million in a recent funding round, bringing the startup's total investment to $42.2 million.

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In February, California-based startup Nuro revealed a $92 million in a series A funding round. Closed in mid-2017, the investment is aimed at the creation of a self-driving delivery van for last-minute deliveries in cities.

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