Erica Phillips reports in the Wall Street Journal:
There might be a few kinks to work through as cities figure out legal parameters for robot use and robot makers tackle the challenges city streets present. Programmers are still finessing the complexities of crossing the street. Many delivery robots can’t enter buildings—dealing with the many types and sizes of doors and how to get through them is too big a challenge. So one might see small crowds of them waiting outside offices or apartment complexes at busy times of day.
On a sunny day here in the residential Potrero Hill neighborhood, a 3-foot-tall robot named Scrappy went out for a stroll.
Box-shaped, mounted on four rubber wheels and outfitted with a high-tech array of sensors and cameras, Scrappy is part of a team of robots surveying the sidewalk landscape for Marble, a robotics startup here. For now, the robots are taking their walks with Marble executives or employees. Within a year, the company aims to have the majority of San Francisco’s sidewalks three-dimensionally mapped—allowing its small fleet to autonomously navigate the city, carrying everything from groceries to takeout, dry-cleaning and prescriptions to and from homes and businesses.
As Scrappy rolled around Jackson Playground, most of the park’s patrons and passersby—human and canine—ignored the humble robot. But Kathy Piziali was intrigued.
“We’ve never run into a real robot before,” said Ms. Piziali, who was taking her 3-year-old grandson to the playground.
Marble Chief Executive Matt Delaney imagines a future where few people will be able to say that: Delivery robots will eliminate the need for many of the cars, trucks and vans on streets today, allowing cities to carve out much more space for pedestrians—many of whom will have their own personal robots in tow to carry things for them.
That vision might not fully come about for another generation or so, Mr. Delaney says, but he—like other entrepreneurs who are testing sidewalk robots in cities around the world—believes robots will be a common sight on city streets within a decade.
“This is what we’ve all been seeing in the science-fiction movies we watched growing up,” says Siddharth Vanchinathan, co-founder of Propelland, a San Francisco-based technology and design firm.
Meeting the publicOther robot makers include Dispatch, also based in the San Francisco Bay Area; Starship Technologies, with headquarters in London and engineering based in Estonia; and Piaggio PIA -1.57% Fast Forward, a division of Italy’s Piaggio SpA, known as the maker of Vespa scooters. Generally the companies say they plan to offer their robots for hire, rather than selling them outright, and for now they decline to disclose what they would cost to purchase.
The robots are all essentially caddies on wheels, roughly the size of a laundry basket or two, big enough to carry small parcels and small enough to allow pedestrians to walk by. With tracking systems and cameras on all sides, they wouldn’t necessarily be a target for thieves, developers say, because it would immediately be clear who took them and where they were headed.
The early designs are made for short trips carrying packages weighing up to 30 pounds or so. And while the robots aren’t anything like humanoid, there’s something undeniably captivating about them—particularly at first sight.
During a lunch-hour test run in Redwood City, Calif., last month, a Starship robot turned dozens of heads in a span of less than four blocks. Several people snapped pictures with their cellphones, and a few spoke directly to the robot.
“Lookin’ good!” one young man said as he walked by.
“Come back here, you!” another man joked as the robot sallied forth at about 4 miles an hour.
Daune Turner, of Menlo Park, Calif., was observing the Starship robot’s outing from down the street. “I’ve watched people walking by it and it stopped,” she said. “I was thinking about their shins, but it stopped, so that’s good.”
As the Starship robot ambled by Redwood City’s Courthouse Square and San Mateo County History Museum, it caught the attention of a gaggle of schoolchildren, who skipped over, chanting, “Robo-bot! Robo-bot!” as they pumped their fists.
But if you ask Henry Harris-Burland, marketing chief for Starship, that kind of attention is becoming increasingly rare. The firm has tested its robots in more than 50 cities, including London, where they’ve been at it for more than six months now. In one recent London outing on a busy day, Mr. Harris-Burland says, “60% to 70% of people completely ignored the robot—I was quite offended!”
Starship wants to deploy “thousands and thousands of robots in thousands and thousands of cities doing millions and millions of deliveries,” Mr. Harris-Burland says. But even then, he estimates, the new autonomous population wouldn’t present too drastic a change for city residents. “You might see one going down your street every 10 minutes or so,” he says.
Kinks and skepticsDevelopers and engineers say there might be a few kinks to work through as cities figure out legal parameters for robot use and robot makers tackle the many challenges city streets present. Programmers are still finessing the complexities of crossing the street, for example.
For now, many of the delivery robots can’t enter buildings—dealing with the many types and sizes of doors and how to get through them is too big a challenge at this point. So one might see small crowds of them waiting outside offices or apartment complexes at busy times of day. One idea developers have discussed is a separate elevator for robots in the highest-density buildings, but that’s out of their hands.
There are skeptics. “I’m not sure what pressing problem these robots are supposed to solve for us,” says Michael Manville, an urban-planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Do we seriously have a problem where people can’t move stuff down sidewalks?” If the purpose is to ease traffic congestion, Mr. Manville says, cities could better accomplish that by charging for the use of certain busy roads, improving bicycle lanes, enacting a gas tax, or all of the above. “I hate to think that excitement over what this technology could do would displace energy that could be used to employ existing and proven, albeit less exciting, ways to improve our cities,” he says.
But developers are pressing ahead. Piaggio has several tests planned beginning later this year. Starship has parcel and takeout-delivery pilot programs going in several cities. And on April 12 Marble announced the launch of a food-delivery partnership with Yelp ’s YELP -0.40% Eat24 delivery service in San Francisco.
“The thing we can’t wait for is for it to be kind of commonplace,” Mr. Delaney says. “It’d be an easier world if everything was just robots.”