Imagine walking down Congress Avenue, surrounded by throngs of pedestrians hurrying to lunch or a business meeting. Ahead of you, the crowd slows a bit to make room for a knee-high robot merrily rolling down the sidewalk to make a food delivery.
This is not a scene from a futuristic movie set in Austin. Delivery robots could come to Austin as early as this year, thanks to an effort by Starship Technologies.
The Austin City Council is set to vote Thursday on a resolution asking the city manager to explore what steps need to be taken in order to allow Starship robots to operate in Austin. A recommendation is due by June 30.
“It could provide a good alternative to getting items delivered right to a person’s house,” said City Council member Kathie Tovo, the lead sponsor on the resolution. “And it doesn’t add car trips.”
Starship’s robots, which look like portable printers on wheels, are already in operation in several U.S. cities, such as Washington, D.C., Fayetteville, Ark., and two San Francisco Bay Area cities. Starship is headquartered in London.
The company is one of several trying to solve the “last mile” problem of inexpensively delivering food or other merchandise to a customer’s doorstep. Henry Harris-Burland, vice president of marketing for Starship Technologies, said his company is currently working with companies that offer on-demand delivery, such as DoorDash and Postmates.
In a video interview with the Wall Street Journal, Postmates chief operations officer Russell Cook says using Starship’s robots helped him cut down delivery costs by 80 to 90 percent. Of course, this also means that these robots will replace jobs now done by people.
The robots come equipped with video cameras and sensors, along with a GPS system that helps them maneuver city sidewalks in order to reach their destination. These robots can’t climb stairs or take elevators, so a customer will have to meet them at the door.
The robots are mostly autonomous, Harris-Burland said, but when they encounter street crossings they are assisted by a remote human operator. He said the Starship robots trundle along at about 4 miles per hour, and often take less direct, but safer, routes that aren’t crowded.
He said the robots will only operate in areas that have sidewalks. Tovo said she expects they will be used in the downtown area, or in neighborhoods like Mueller.
Tovo said she got interested in allowing Starship’s robots to operate in Austin after the robot delivery company visited City Hall during South by Southwest this year to show off the technology.
Harris-Burland declined to provide a specific timeline for when the company might come to Austin, but he said it could happen this year.
Tovo said it wasn’t clear whether there were any city regulations preventing Starship from operating its robots here now. That is part of what the city manager is being asked to figure out in Thursday’s resolution, she explained.
Marissa Monroy, spokeswoman in the city’s transportation department, said there was no legal impediment to operating delivery robots in Austin right now.
Starship is not without competitors. There are several other companies launching robot delivery services, such as Marble, Dispatch and Piaggio Fast Forward. Starship is the furthest along, operating in more cities than its competitors.
“We welcome the competition, in all honesty,” Harris-Burland said. “We’re trying to build an industry here. The more companies that establish themselves in the area of robot delivery is really great.”
Starship was founded in 2014 by Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, who previously had started the online video chat company Skype.