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This article was published 18/3/2017 (1718 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When they first see a little robot moving down the sidewalks of Washington, people ask the same question: "Can it bring me beer?"
Eventually, yes. Or a few bags of groceries. Or a half-dozen burgers and fries. In fact, the next time you place an order on Postmates, there’s a chance a robot and his friendly handler might appear at your door. It’s as if they’re visitors from the future who travelled back in time to complete an important mission: bringing you a burrito.
They’re the product of Starship Technologies, a robotics company from Estonia that has been testing its robot couriers in Washington, D.C., for the past few weeks. About the size of an Igloo cooler with wheels, they have the design aesthetic of an iPhone, the rugged durability of an all-terrain vehicle and the lovable charm — entirely projected upon this inanimate machine by humans — of the Star Wars droid BB-8.
"It does have that kind of cute appeal to it," said Nick Handrick, 31, head of operations for Starship’s D.C. office. The company’s designers wanted to "create a device that people are actually comfortable with, that they’re comfortable having around their children, around their vehicles, their personal property. So part of the design decision is to make it something that people find endearing."
The robots are piloted autonomously, guided by nine cameras and numerous sensors. They travel only on sidewalks, with the permission of the D.C. council, and can reach a top speed of six kilometres per hour. They can detect obstacles from as far as nine metres away, and they are constantly monitoring — and recording and mapping — their terrain.
"The robot can operate through just about anything," said Handrick. "If you had something in the way — a stick, a curb — it’s able to climb curbs."
So if, say, someone didn’t pick up after a dog on the sidewalk, the robot would be able to roll around the mess. Or if a sidewalk is under construction, it could take a different route. And for now, it is always accompanied by a human minder, whose job is to answer questions, collect observations and data, and help the robot if it gets into a bind — which, so far, it hasn’t.
For deliveries, the robots are also secure. They can be opened and closed only by the restaurant and the customer, who can unlock a robot’s hatch through a mobile phone code. "Were someone to try to take it or mess with it, it would use its sensors to tell its operator that it’s being messed with," said Handrick. "It has gyroscopes, so if it gets tilted or tipped or anything, then we actually do have a mic and speaker through it so an operator would be able to speak through the robot."
People have tried to trip up the robots, literally. "They want to see if it’s going to stop when they put their foot in front of it. They think if it runs into their foot, it could run into anything," said Handrick. But it doesn’t. "The robot will essentially stop on a dime."
For now, Starship has partnered with Postmates, and is getting restaurants used to handing off meals to a robot. Five robots are in the pilot program so far.
Eventually, Handrick says, Starship hopes they can also deliver groceries and goods, such as dry cleaning, and to be able to travel without a human minder within the year. So far, Starship is using the robots in Estonia, England, Germany, Switzerland and the United States, where Washington is the second city to see them (after Redwood City, Calif.).
For now, as they glide down the sidewalk with a mechanical purr, they’re causing some double takes.
The robot rolled over a "Free Gaza" graffitied patch of sidewalk. It stopped politely at driveways and for bikers. It slowed down when approaching bus stops and congested sidewalks. And when it encountered another delivery robot moving in the other direction on the sidewalk, they each kept to the right and passed each other silently.
— The Washington Post