Delivery robots for takeaways trialled by Just Eat
Your next Saturday night takeaway could be brought to you by a robot after a major food delivery company announced plans to use automated vehicles to transport meals.
Europe's biggest online takeaway food company Just Eat has partnered with Starship Technologies, makers of slow moving pavement droids, to deliver food with robots on the streets of London later this month.
"Nobody has ever done deliveries with land-based robots," said Allan Martinson, the chief operating officer of Starship, a two-year-old Estonian company created by former Skype co-founder Janus Friis and developer Ahti Heinla.
The robot courier is a six-wheel automated trolley that can travel up to 4 mph for roughly 10 miles. It uses a GPS signal and nine cameras to navigate and avoid obstacles.
Half a dozen Starship robots will deliver food for Just Eat and meal on-demand startup Pronto in a UK trial due to start in London later this month. The exact areas they will run is still to be decided.
Instead of a person arriving at their door, customers could find themselves receiving a notification on their phone that says a robot is on its way and a code to unlock the automated courier. "Put the code in, the robot opens up, and there's your food," said David Buttress, chief executive of Just Eat.
The Starship robot can carry up to 10 kilograms or three shopping bags at a time and is designed to transport packages, groceries and takeaway meals.
"In busy times there's a shortage of supply drivers," said Buttress. "These will enable restaurants to meet the demand."
The robot, which has so far been tested in Greenwich, Milton Keynes and Glastonbury, is cheaper than the average human delivery, costing £1 to transport within a 3 mile radius, compared with the £3 to £6 it costs for a human courier.
To date 30 robots have driven nearly 5,000 miles without getting into an accident or finding themselves picked on by passersby. They have driven in more than 40 cities around the world, including London and Tallinn, Estonia.
"We haven't lost a single robot in eight months, or been involved in any accidents that resulted in loss or injury," said Martinson.
An initial worry was how the public would react to the robots. But Martinson said the public has been unfazed when passing the delivery machine on the streets. "The most surprising reaction has been the lack of reaction," said Martinson. "But kids love it. We've seen them try to chase it, hug it. One person tried to feed it a banana."
Another significant fear was that people would interfere with the robots, or try to steal them and their contents. To prevent this, the robot is fitted them with nine cameras, two way audio, and movement sensors that send an alert if it is lifted off the ground. And it only opens with a passcode provided to the customer via a notification. "It's much easier to shoplift than it is to steal a robot," said Martinson.
In the long term the robots could collect groceries for people on a daily basis. "We're talking about giving people the one hour back that they spend shopping for groceries. That's probably the biggest gift," said Martinson.
If the trial goes well Just Eat is ready to adopt the delivery droids quickly. Buttress said that they could increase their fleet of robotic couriers across the country as early as 2017.
But before then, Starship needs to improve the machines' autonomy and navigation, according to Martinson. "At the moment we're doing all of the testing under human control. We need to further the seamless self-driving capability."