What do you get when you mix a driverless car with a drone that delivers packages? You get a self-driving robot that delivers mail and packages, on demand, like the ones being tested now in Switzerland, in 2016.
These are courteous robots, sharing the sidewalk with pedestrians, and stopping when they get close enough to bump into one.
The special delivery self-driving robots are at work in a couple of Swiss cities, including Bern, the Swiss capital, testing delivery of special mailings, including packages that require flexible and rapid local delivery.
If the robots behave, their role could be expanded in the future for same-day and same-hour delivery of food or medicine, according to Switzerland’s Federal Roads Office.
Similar tests are underway in Germany and UK, where the robots were developed by a company – appropriately named – Starship Technologies. Scotty, beam up to the robot factory.
Here’s how Starship robots work:
Starship robot facts
According to SwissInfo.ch, the little battery-powered robots can carry up to 22 pounds (10 kilos) at a time, and travel for up to two hours, or around four miles total, between battery charges.
Top speed is just under 5mph, around the same as brisk walking speed.
The Starship Technologies robots being tested have nine cameras, four frontal sensors and GPS technology to help them avoid obstacles and navigate safely to their destinations.
The cameras have another purpose as well: to help deter potential thieves.
The robots are also “smart”, in the sense that they “learn” during each excursion, adding to their level of autonomy. When they reach their destination, the robots send an SMS to alert the intended recipient that their package has arrived.
During the test phase, a human companion will supervise the robots.
Not a replacement
Swiss officials stress that the robots are not intended to replace traditional package distribution practices.
With typical Swiss diplomacy, the robots “represent Swiss Post’s desire to adapt to the evolving online shopping market, and to compete with increasing numbers of foreign logistics services.”
Last year, Swiss Post also tested the use of drones to deliver small packages of goods such as medicine.
Swiss Post expects drone and delivery robots will be “commercialised within three to five years”. That’s about when autonomous, driverless cars are due to be on the roads, too.