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Eco-friendly self-driving delivery bots reach UK, US sidewalks

Flying drones might several years away, but land-bound robots might soon be delivering our packages.

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Starship Technologies hopes to launch a fleet of earthbound delivery robots to deliver our local goods with a tiny carbon footprint.

We've begun to see autonomous vehicles entering our roads with the aim of reducing accidents and improving driver safety, and now similar technology is being harnessed for the retail sector.

London-based Starship Technologies, launched by former Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, is a new company which aims to "fundamentally improve" local deliveries with CO2-free, safe robots able to autonomously run down our roads and deliver our goods.

On Monday, the company said it would introduce a fleet of small delivery robots in both the UK and the United States which will change how we receive our goods. Specifically, Heinla and Friis want to establish a "zero cost, zero waiting time and zero environmental impact" fleet of bots.

If this vision becomes reality, the robots could not only save businesses money, but this cost saving could also be passed on to consumers -- or even prompt the development of completely new delivery companies. For example, door-to-door delivery could be eradicated in favor of the bulk delivery of goods to a local hub, where the robots will be ready to take each package to its respective destination.

"We want to do to local deliveries what Skype did to telecommunications," Heinla says.

The tiny, wheeled robots have been created using off-the-shelf components to keep the cost down and are capable of completing local deliveries to your home within five to 30 minutes. The company says that each robot can carry the equivalent of two grocery bags, making them suitable for small shopping orders.

Starship Technologies says that a future business model would allow consumers to choose a delivery slot and then track their robot's location through a mobile app. To prevent sticky fingers from opening the robot and pinching your package en route, the robot can only be opened by the app holder via customer registration and recognition.

The robot fleet can only travel at four miles per hour and are able to run on sidewalks. It will be interesting to see how the prototypes cope with pedestrians, but at least they won't be hampering traffic on our roads. Speaking to Mashable, Heinla said initial social acceptance tests involving roughly 5,000 people revealed an average of 80 -- 90 percent of people took no notice of the robots on sidewalks whatsoever.

Human operators are on-call to step in should the robot's sensors fail and collide with environmental objects, but according to the company, sensors and cameras will help the fleet navigate streets effectively. The robot also makes use of local maps which are updated constantly to stay on track.

Heinla commented:

"With e-commerce continuing to grow consumers expect to have more convenient options for delivery -- but at a cost that suits them. The last few miles often amounts to the majority of the total delivery cost.

Our robots are purposely designed using the technologies made affordable by mobile phones and tablets -- it's fit for purpose, and allows for the cost savings to be passed on to the customer."

Starship Technologies is currently testing prototypes and refining its business model, with the hope of launching a pilot scheme in the UK and US in 2016.

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