To date most of the talk around drones has been about how flying drones will disrupt the delivery industry. But for some bizarre reason the whole idea of a ‘ground drone’ which could address the ‘last mile’ of deliveries tended to be missed. Well, no more.
Now, two former co-founders of Skype, Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, have created Starship Technologies, an Estonian start-up which will produce a small autonomous drone which looks like a fridge on wheels with blinking LED lights.
Heinla and Friis have ‘form’ in disrupting major industries (the music industry with KaZaA and telecoms with Skype). The other key executives of the company are Allan Martinson (COO) and Keith Cornell (CCO). The company employs 30 people in London, Tallinn and Helsinki.
The Starship drone is designed to deliver groceries, drugstore goods and small packages to suburban homes. It also has a major advantage over flying drones: it won’t fall out of the sky or take out an airliner.
The idea is that a customer will place an order online, then the Starship drone will be automatically loaded up with the goods inside a ‘portable warehouse’ which is actually constructed from a converted cargo container. This can be placed anywhere which is convenient, like a parking lot or by a shopping mall, for instance. The Starship then heads out on the sidewalks at a top speed of four miles an hour, with a range of up to two miles. The aim is to deliver a package in under 30 minutes.
The customer can track the drone’s progress with an app, then use the app to open up the drone and take delivery of the package. The six-wheeled vehicle has a low-power electric motor which only requires a fast charge back at base. It can even tackle some low stairs.
The prototype can carry around 40 pounds, or, say two bags of groceries, and employs high-resolution maps of a local area. A camera and radar help it to navigate the world, because GPS isn’t accurate enough to keep the robot on the sidewalk. It will also have speakers and microphones to interact with humans.
It’s estimate that United Parcel Service delivers over four billion packages and documents a year, so employing autonomous drones technology to address this market is pretty disruptive.
In theory, customers could even try out a product, decide not to keep it and send the drone back to base with the product at virtually no cost.
Although crowded city streets are less than ideal, it’s in gated communities, retirement villages, university campuses and the suburbs where Starship drones are likely to thrive. While theft could be an issue, thieves would have to contend with the video camera and the GPS tracking system, were they tempted to steal the drone or its contents.
If it runs into trouble, the drones can call on a remote human operator to navigate and take over.
It’s also cheap to run – the Starship can make a delivery less than $1, or 15 times cheaper than a human, and obviously more environmentally friendly than gas-driven delivery trucks.
The 30-person Estonian firm will launch experimental deliveries in Greenwich, London, and in the US next spring, with a full service in 2017.
Regulatory hurdles will of course be an issue, but not nearly as problematic as flying drones…