You might not have seen one yet, but the robots are coming. Autonomous delivery drones, helper bots and driverless transport pods could soon be commonplace in our towns and cities as technology catches up with science fiction. It’s still early days, but these are the droids you should be looking for…
We’ve been following this Starship Technologies delivery robot (pictured above) for some time and it’s already been used by Just Eat for takeaway deliveries. But that’s just the beginning.
Domino’s will use the six-wheeled self-navigating bots to deliver pizza in Germany, while DoorDash have begun delivering food orders in the US. Closer to home, delivery company Hermes is planning a 2017 trial in London to see if the technology can be used for parcels.
Amazon Prime Air drone
If you see the quadcopter below whining across the skies, then it’s probably carrying an Amazon parcel. This Amazon Prime Air drone has already delivered its first package successfully in the UK, flying fully autonomously and fulfilling the order (from click to delivery) in an impressive 13 minutes.
In San Francisco, Yelp Eat24 is trialling Marble’s four-wheeled, Lidar-equipped ‘intelligent courier robots’. Like the Starship bot, customers receive a PIN code that is used to unlock the robot’s cargo bay when it arrives.
“We’re starting with meals,” Matt Delaney, CEO and cofounder of Marble told Techcrunch, “but think our robots will be useful for everything from groceries, to pharmacy and parcel delivery in the long run.”
The 5ft Fellow Robots NAVii is the basis of the LoweBot currently being trialled in the US. Not only can this droid monitor a store’s inventory in real-time, it’s capable of assisting customers with simple stock queries, both via voice and via a built-in touch display. Watch it in action below.
The Savioke Relay is another delivery robot, but one that’s designed for indoor use. Think of it as a robot butler. You’ll most likely find these bin-sized bots roaming the carpeted halls of US hotels (including Holiday Inn Express, Sheraton and Crowne Plaza), delivering everything from food and beverages to linens and toothpaste, directly to guests in their rooms.
“Soon,” says Flirtey, “drones in the sky will look as normal as delivery trucks on the road.” A six-rotor Flirtey-copter has already delivered pizza for Domino’s in New Zealand and, during April, completed the “first fully autonomous, FAA-approved urban drone delivery in the United States.”.
Interestingly, rather than landing to drop off its cargo like the Amazon Prime Air drone, the Flirtey drone lowers it down to the ground while hovering above its target.
The good-looking Matternet M2 is another last-mile delivery system, designed to carry packages up to two kilograms over a range of 20 miles. The Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation (FOCA) has granted Matternet permission to fly its drones autonomously across urban areas. Working with delivery company Swiss Post, quadcopters will soon be flying blood samples and parcels between two hospitals in the city of Lugano.
Matternet is also working with Mercedes Benz to revolutionise parcel delivery. Watch the video below and you’ll see how vans and Matternet drones could work together to improve the efficiency of last-mile deliveries.
Built by Oxbotica, the Greenwich Automated Transport Environment project is a drone you can ride in. It’s part of an £8 million investigation into the perception and acceptance of driverless vehicles in the UK. The experiment will see the autonomous shuttles run on a 2km route shared by pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers.
“It’ll be quite some time before you have autonomous vehicles that can take you from any place to any other place, at any time of day, whatever the weather,” Paul Newman, Oxbotica’s co-founder told the Guardian. “But I can see ‘mobility as a service’ kicking off quite rapidly.”
It’s still early days for robots and drones. Flying parcel deliveries still seem like a gimmick. But the past year has seen some real progress. Ongoing tests, like those being conducted by Amazon and Just Eat/Starship Technologies, will only help the technology to develop and mature.
Before long, we’ll be sharing our pavements and our roads with all manner of bots and drones, while UAVs will whine across the skies promising local deliveries within 30 minutes, launched from driverless vans or automated drone hubs. The technology is ready. But are we?