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Delivery robots hit the streets of London

Chloe Henderson

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Courier company Hermes has announced a new trial for self-driving delivery robots in the London borough of Southwark.

The firm will deploy a number of six-wheeled robots as part of a testing programme for parcel collections.
Developed by Starship Technologies, they can carry a maximum weight of 10kg in cargo, and can travel at speeds of up to 4mph.

Each robot is 55cm tall, 70cm in length, and weighs approximately 18kg.
They will be used within a two-mile radius of their control centres, in a limited number of 30-minute collection slots, to test how they cope with tight turnarounds.

They are internet connected, using 3G to locate customers’ addresses and track progress.

It’s not the first time the delivery bots have been put to the test: they were previously trialled in selected German and Dutch cities in partnership with Domino’s Pizza Enterprises.

They are also already being used by Just Eat for food deliveries in the capital.

Speaking about the programme, Carole Woodhead, Chief Executive of Hermes, said: “We can already see first-hand the success [Starship Technologies] have had with food deliveries in London, and we are excited to team up with them in a bid to revolutionise the home delivery marketplace,”

Hermes are not the first delivery service to invest in autonomous courier systems, with Amazon leading the way in the development of aerial delivery drones.


However, land based robots have a number of advantages over their flying counterparts: they are less likely to run afoul of strict aviation laws, and have the potential to can carry more weight.

“The self-driving delivery robots offer a viable alternative to drones, especially in highly developed cities, towns and suburbs where strict aviation laws are in constant operation,’ a spokesperson from Hermes said.
Despite their advantages, the robots also come with a unique set of challenges that call into question the feasibility of full scale operations.

The most obvious concern is for the security of their cargo. Packages are stored inside a secure compartment that can only be unlocked with a code sent to the customer’s phone, but what’s to prevent the theft of the entire vehicle?
As the devices are internet connected there is also potential for them to be hacked remotely. Organisations like Hermes will need to ensure that they have a sufficient cyber-defence strategy in place.

Starship Technologies has assured that human operators are on standby to take over the controls or contact the police should a situation arise.

The physical security of the device is also a key consideration. The cargo bay is locked throughout the journey and can only be opened only by the recipient, and the location is constantly tracked. The drone’s nine cameras can also capture the face of any perpetrators in the event of theft.

Regardless, Hermes and Starship will need to prove that they can keep parcels secure before consumers place their trust in robotic delivery devices.

Another area for consideration is the potential risk of injury that the robots could pose to pedestrians, particularly on busy streets.

Starship has attempted to mitigate the problem by installing flashing LED lights at eye level, but this does little to reduce the risk to those hard-of-sight.

Some might also question Hermes decision to make use of autonomous delivery systems rather than people.
With robots to replace one in three UK jobs by over the next twenty years, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, efforts to push humans out of delivery services may be met with some hostility.

For now, this shouldn’t be a problem, according to Hermes’ Head of Innovation David Turner. Talking to Diginomica, he said that the focus was on augmenting Hermes’ service, not replacing it.

“What this on-demand service allows us to do, by moving data in real time, is to deviate parcels into a parcel shop, so if the human courier is nearby, via GPS, we could ask that courier to deliver in the next 30 minutes if they are, say, 0.6 miles away from the shop… rather than playing on the ‘courier or robot?’ side of things, we’re simply experimenting with our product.”

For every three robots, there will also be an operator monitoring its progress and ready to help navigate it through potentially tricky situations, such as road crossings.

However, Starship Technologies says that one person will be able to supervise up to 100 vehicles in the future.

The drones are also limited by their range and their current inability to navigate difficult terrain.

With a relatively small radius of operations, the robots are suited to cities like London, and potentially Edinburgh, but would be difficult to operate in remote areas such as the Highlands and Islands.

But for now, Starship Technologies is focusing on the strategic future for autonomous vehicles in the courier services market: “We believe our robots will revolutionise local delivery. We see a world where you can send and receive anything you want, anytime and anywhere. Our engineering expertise… is enabling us to turn this into a reality.”

Chloe Henderson

Staff Writer - DIGIT

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