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Linux-based robots will soon deliver packages

Nov 3, 2015 — by Eric Brown — 677 views

[Updated: Nov. 4] — A London-based startup called “Starship,” launched by Skype co-founders, is developing a wheeled, Linux-based robot and service for package delivery.

Former Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis announced the formation of a London-based robotics services company called Starship Technologies, “which aims to fundamentally improve local delivery of goods and groceries, making it almost free.” The 30-employee company, which also has offices in Estonia, showed off some images and a few specs for a prototype delivery robot that will enter trials in 2016. The robot runs on a Linux operating system, according to a Starship rep.

Starship Robot on the move
(click image to enlarge)

The wagon-like, six-wheeled Starship robot travels down sidewalks at a “brisk walking pace” speed of about four miles per hour, and can carry the equivalent of two grocery bags worth of goods. The battery-powered robot can deliver goods locally within a 5 kilometer (3 mile) radius, and operates autonomously 99 percent of the time. Camera-driven obstacle avoidance technology is used to avoid collisions with pedestrians and pets.

Starship robot, front and back
(click images to enlarge)

Starship offered few technical details, but the spokesperson said the prototype runs Linux on an Nvidia Tegra K1 system-on-chip, along with several STM microcontrollers used to drive sensors and motors. The quad-core, Cortex-A15 SoC runs at 2.3GHz, and features Nvidia Kepler graphics with 192 CUDA cores. The choice of processor is subject to change, however, notes the spokesperson.

The 40-pound robot is said to on off-the-shelf components, leading to a lower cost. This sholuld help the delivery service reduce the current cost of delivery by 10 to 15 times per shipment, claims Starship. A mobile app will enable users to choose from precise delivery times, and track the robot’s progress. The robot is designed to open its cargo hold only for the intended recipient.

Starship is pitching the service to businesses with promises to “eliminate the largest inefficiency in the delivery chain, the last mile.” Instead of using delivery trucks, “retailers can ship the goods in bulk to a local hub, then the robot fleet completes the delivery to the shopper’s door for a fraction of the cost,” says the company. The company says it is also looking at new opportunities, such as point-to-point delivery of goods, or rental-and-return.

Starship robot cargo (left) and vision systems
(click images to enlarge)

A Fast Company story on the startup says that the robots, which can carry up to 20-pound packages, will first operate in relatively uncongested urban areas, following a variety of mapped routes. Human operators can step in to operate the robot when it encounters an unusual situation, taking advantage of a variety of onboard cameras.

Starship Robot making a delivery at night
(click image to enlarge)

In next year’s pilots, which will take place in the UK, U.S., and other countries, human operators are expected to take control for about half the time. This is expected to move to 90 percent autonomous behavior by the end of 2016 and 99 percent in the near future.

Onboard GPS can help track the robots if they are stolen, says the story. In fact, the human operators will be happy explain this fact to the thieves over the robot’s onboard speakers. Regulations may pose an obstacle in some communities, but Starship argues that the robots are much safer than drones for package delivery, as proposed by companies such as Amazon and Google. The company suggests they are also cheaper and capable of carrying larger payloads.

Savioke SaviOne
(click to enlarge)

Other Linux-based delivery robots include Savioke’s SaviOne. The SaviOne, however, needs only to navigate a hotel’s hallways for its intended purpose of delivering towels and other goods to hotel guests.

“The last few miles often amounts to the majority of the total delivery cost,” stated Heinla. “Our robots are purposely designed using the technologies made affordable by mobile phones and tablets — it’s fit for purpose, and allows for the cost savings to be passed on to the customer.”

Further information

More information on the Starship Technologies robots, which will enter trials in 2016, may be found at the Starship website.

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