Saturday, June 25, 2022

When is robot delivery coming to Virginia Beach? Sooner than you think.

This rolling delivery robot will leave you “more time for the things that matter in your life,” according to the website for its manufacturer, Starship Technologies. (Courtesy Starship Technologies)

If you think on-demand delivery apps are hip, robots are next-level. But they’re not science fiction.

In the not-too-distant future, a cooler-sized bot might roll up to your door instead of a driver. You’d unlock the device with a mobile app and reach inside for your groceries, packages or take-out burrito.

Virginia could even be next.

Starship Technologies, the London-based brainchild of Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, bills itself as the maker of “the first commercially available autonomous delivery robots,” according to its website. Starship has tested its wheeled devices in 59 cities and 16 countries; it also has ongoing pilot programs with commercial partners in Europe and the U.S., the website says.

In April, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a law clearing the way for robot delivery in the commonwealth. The measure, which takes effect July 1, was introduced by two Virginia Beach legislators: Del. Ronald A. Villanueva and Sen. Bill R. DeSteph Jr.

Starship’s delivery robot looks like WALL-E, or “a cooler on wheels,” according to Virginia Beach Del. Ron Villanueva. (Courtesy Starship Technologies)

Villanueva has seen the robot in action, when Starship brought it to Richmond, he said during a recent phone interview, and it looks like WALL-E — the trash-collecting character in the 2008 animated film.

“Kind of like that, but a cooler on wheels,” he added.

The robots can deliver up to 22 pounds of stuff within a three-mile radius, according to information in a media kit on Starship’s website. They travel at speeds of up to 10 miles per hour. They mostly use sidewalks, like pedestrians. They operate with a blend of GPS and computer vision, which they use to make a 3D map of their surroundings.

Also, they’re not 100-percent on their own, at least not yet. Human operators are available during the mapping process and at any point for help with “unexpected situations” or “social interaction,” the website says.

The robots are available on a pay-per delivery basis (at a cost of roughly $1) or as a monthly rental to businesses, according to Starship’s website. (Courtesy Starship Technologies)

For Villanueva, Hampton Roads is an ideal candidate for Starship’s bots — there’s the region’s urban population and its push for economic diversification.

“There’s tremendous interest in the community,” Villanueva said. “It’s all about innovation and new industries.”

Still, Henry Harris-Burland, Starship’s vice president of marketing, declined to say whether Hampton Roads would make the cut.

“We’re currently analyzing the best places to start delivery services in the Commonwealth but we have no concrete confirmations [sic] of where yet,” he wrote in an email.

Postmates Inc., an on-demand delivery service working with Starship on a pilot project in Washington, D.C., also declined to say when delivery bots might appear in the Southside. Postmates already serves Virginia Beach and Norfolk, but not with robots.

Vikrum Aiyer, director of communications and public policy, did leave the door open, though, saying Postmates would welcome a dialogue with legislators about piloting robot delivery in Virginia Beach.

“We think that could happen in the future,” he added. “But as of right now, we’re much more in testing mode rather than expanding in Virginia Beach mode.”

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