The Estonian-British startup Starship Technologies develops ground-based, autonomous delivery robots for parcel delivery. In their interior the knee-high rolling parcel carriers have a protected hollow space that can fit a medium-sized package – which opens when the rolling parcel robot arrives at the doorstep of the intended delivery recipient.
Vans & Robots
What a clever idea! But what exactly does this have to do with Daimler? Quite a bit – and this has to do with a very specific weakness of the delivery robots: Without a doubt, they can significantly increase the delivery efficiency in the last few yards. But, in the foreseeable future, they will only have a very limited range. Logically, the range is limited by battery time – besides, the robots move at walking speed, so that their application for long distances is not exactly efficient.
That's just where the project Vans & Robots comes in. It is lodged at Mercedes-Benz Vans in the Future Transportation unit. The project team is working closely together with Starship Technologies and has developed the “mother ship approach” which could turn out to be an ideal solution for ground transport of goods.
Mother ship approach
In case you’ve never heard this term before, the explanation is actually quite easy: In their initial considerations, the robot developers from Estonia assumed that the robots would swarm out from several fixed reloading points (or “hubs”, as specialists call them) within a city area and would deliver the merchandise to the customers in this way. “However, this original approach requires a high use of resources because you need suitable real estate and a lot of manpower,” explains Patrick Layer from the project team. But, if you take a van as a mobile hub – or, if you like, as “mother ship” – the concept becomes much more efficient and more flexible: On an ideal route, calculated by an algorithm, the van driver drops off one or more robots with their freight at each stop. They roll autonomously through the last meters of the delivery route. And, when the job is done, the robot finds the way back to the mother ship by itself – thanks to geo locating. There it can be reloaded for his next delivery mission.
From the workshop and on the road
Starship Technologies and Mercedes-Benz Vans made a public announcement of their cooperation at the Van Innovation Campus back in September 2016. In January 2017, a further announcement was made: As lead investor, Mercedes-Benz Vans will participate in the 16.5 million euro financing round (convertible note) for Starship Technologies. Yet, the mother ship approach is a theoretical one. But how would the robots and the Sprinters interact with each other on the street? That's exactly what the months ahead are to show: “We are currently deciding with which customers we'll be doing the first pilot test,” says Steven Kasih from the project team. “In any case, the reception was just enormous: We have been contacted by several courier parcel services and online shipping dealers. I think that many people in the industry have understood what potential our concept has.” The team aims at bringing the field tests on the road in the first half of 2017.
The hurdles? Not trivial but manageable
In the current development status, the driver of the Sprinter still has to load the delivery robot by hand, and a system of LED lights specifies the sequence. In the long-term the loading is to take place automatically in the vehicle interior – the project team is already thinking about this. Outside the mother ship, the robots' level of autonomy presents another challenge: The robots already recognize fixed and moving hindrances reliably. And their behavior at pedestrian lights is more exemplary than that of some of their two-legged contemporaries. Nevertheless, at the moment there are still situations that the robots can't handle themselves. In such cases they stop and - take up contact with the operator – who is a person of flesh and blood supervising the entire robot fleet and who even has remote control over the individual robots.
Finally, there is still the lawmaker: “Some persuasion work is still needed,” says Steven Kasih from the project team. “For the medium term we will need trans-regional legislation that allows robots to use sidewalks or even bicycle paths." Once it exists, the concept pays off: Already today, the major part of parcels weighs no more than 2kg and thus could be delivered by a robot. That’s why they could be a perfect add-on for parcel services: While the employee drives the van and delivers large parcels, his autonomous colleagues will take over the transport of smaller deliveries. Patrick Layer from the project team puts it in a nutshell: “Today, a trained parcel service driver delivers about 180 packages on a nine-hour tour. According to the initial estimates, the number could rise to as much as 400 packages in the same timeframe.” This is not only an enormous leap in efficiency – but also a good strategy for meeting the requirements of the strongly growing online trade.