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Delivering the future

19 June 2018

Amongst the many industrial shows and events that I attend throughout the year, the UKIVA Machine Vision Conference always proves to be one of the most interesting, with its extensive programme covering not just what is possible today, but also what we will be seeing in the near future.

One of this year’s key note presentations was from Starship Technologies - not, as you might think some kind of space exploration set-up, but a manufacturer and operator of delivery robots, set up in 2014 by Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, two of the cofounders of Skype.

While I have read about and even seen examples of the robots before, VP  of marketing at Starship Technologies, Henry Harris-Burland, really brought the concept to life in this presentation. Designed to deliver loads such as parcels, groceries, or even takeaway food orders within a two-mile radius, and thus addressing ‘final-mile’ delivery issues, the robots are around a shoulder-width wide and move at pedestrian speed along pavements. The person to whom the delivery is being made uses an app to specify a time and location to rendezvous with the robot.

According to Harris-Burland, where the robots are in use (currently including parts of London and Milton Keynes in the UK) they seem to have attracted relatively little attention on the streets while in operation, with most people simply ignoring them (although I’m not entirely sure this would be the case where I live in semi-rural Sussex where an Uber is still a rare sight!) Inherently safe  and tracked at all times, the robots navigate around people and objects and feature a cargo bay that can only be opened by the recipient. And the aim is to provide the service for £1, or €1, per delivery.

With online ordering becoming ever more prevalent, the manner in which we receive goods is undoubtedly going to have to change, and while drone deliveries still seem a bit, well “sci-fi”, the Starship delivery robots offer a solution that is most definitely here today.

One of the things that really struck me during the presentation, apart from the sheer inevitability of this type of technology and business model, was how the company had developed the delivery robot with large scale production in mind right from the very beginning. Rather than using the most cutting-edge, and therefore most expensive, technologies and techniques, the company has been mindful to ensure the manufacturing costs do not hinder growth to the effect that it is able to produce the robots, says Harris-Burland, for not much more than a smart phone. While vision and blue-sky thinking undoubtedly has its place in today's industrial sector, it is the type of practical long term thinking seen at Starship that all businesses should all aspire to for success.

 
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