Courtesy of Starship Technologies
A picture of the self-driving deliver robot a London-based tech company is hoping to test in the Bay Area.
Redwood City Hall will have some unusual guests Monday night — autonomous robots.
Starship Technologies, computer vision and robots cruising the streets of Redwood City may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but it’s not. The London-based tech company is looking toward a pilot program that could help inform on how to use its state-of-the-art personal delivery devices.
If the Redwood City Council approves the nine-month pilot during its meeting next week, it will become host to Starship’s largest test in the United States. The 2-year-old company conducted a smaller pilot in Washington, D.C., and although it approached the Menlo Park City Council late last month, officials in that city didn’t give an immediate the thumbs up. Now, Redwood City has a chance to jump on board.
“Redwood City is a desirable location because it has good sidewalk density, population density and delivery density from potential partners in the food, grocery and parcel industries. The population [is] tech friendly, and welcome new innovations — and we want people to love our robots!” Starship spokesman Henry Harris-Burland said in an email.
The goal is to deploy 20 of the small self-driving robots equipped with nine cameras as well as ultrasonic sensors, and can move within a 5-mile radius of a charging station. The robot is 99 percent autonomous, able to navigate city streets and climb curbs, but will also be monitored remotely to ensure it crosses intersections safely. Customers can use an app to keep track of their deliveries, and the locked devices only open for the intended recipient, according to Starship and the city.
It’s already tested the robots in Germany and the U.K., but is seeking to move into Silicon Valley — the heart of autonomous technology where companies like Google and Tesla are well into engineering driverless cars.
Businesses and customers in Redwood City’s bustling downtown have embraced various delivery services such as Munchery and Door Dash, making the city a welcoming place to test this type of innovative service, said Catherine Ralston, Redwood City economic development manager.
Two of Starship’s robots are expected to arrive at City Hall and meet the council, which will decide whether to approve the pilot program Monday night.
“Redwood City definitely wants to embrace the industry, the new tech industry that is growing. And we see that through a lot of the startups that are choosing Redwood City to start their business and grow their business. This (pilot) provides us that opportunity to not only try out a new technology and have a pilot program, … but gives us the opportunity through the media presence this brings to say, ‘hey, we welcome new technology and would love for you to bring your technology business here,’” Ralston said.
Local restaurants have reported struggling to find enough delivery drivers during the evening and implementing the pilot could assist. But besides from benefiting business, there are also environmental perks as well as traffic relief potential, Ralston said.
“Starship delivery robots are zero emissions, and every robot, on average, can take 10 cars off the road. We’re concerned about traffic and pollution and we want to assist cities in tackling these problems,” Harris-Burland said.
Ensuring adoption of the technology also depends on having the service be both convenient and cost-efficient, he said.
“We aim to deliver within 15-30 minutes for, in the long run, just $1. This can not only assist the majority of the population, but also the elderly and less able [who] may be reliant on public transport, or family members to get to the grocery store. The robot will be able to deliver all of these things directly to their home, giving them their power back,” Harris-Burland said.
Ralston said she anticipates the pilot could include residential neighborhoods as the company plans to test how the devices function on different street surfaces and grades.
In July, Starship completed a 90 percent autonomous test in Silicon Valley as a preface to the expanded pilot. Although Starship has clearly shown interest in Redwood City, Harris-Burland noted it would deploy their bots to the city on the Peninsula that approves them first; making the first taker the largest pilot host of its delivery robots in the United States to date.
Other companies, including the ubiquitous Amazon, are also investing in alternative delivery systems. Amazon’s Prime Air is being studied as a way to deliver goods via drones.
Ralston noted there may be some conflicts with drones, particularly regarding use near airports. Starship’s proposal won’t cost anything to the city, and the robots haven’t had any reported conflicts with pedestrians or cars, she said.
Plus, the new autonomous delivery robots could prove to be an asset in the city’s toolbox of possible congestion-relief alternatives.
“We’re just excited to embrace new technology and see if there’s potential ways to solve some of our traffic problems on the Peninsula,” Ralston said. “This isn’t going to solve the traffic issues, but this may address some of those short trips and I think we need to keep looking at what’s out there.”
The Redwood City Council meets 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7 at City Hall, 1017 Middlefield Road.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106