Delivery Robots Approaching Level 5 Autonomy, Says Starship CEO

In the News
August 23, 2017

Among the autonomous systems that you’re most likely to see in your daily life in the near future are the delivery robots from Starship Technologies.

Two Skype co-founders, Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, started the Estonia-based company in 2014. The New York Times has described Starship‘s ground vehicles as “a glimpse of the future.” Starship is an RBR50 company, and its autonomous six-wheeled robots stand 2 ft. tall, weigh 40 lb., and travel at just 4 mph.

A coding enthusiast since the age of 10, Henla is also Starship’s CEO and chief technology officer. He was also a co-founder and chief technical architect of KaZaA, plus eight other start-ups.

John Hannah, robotics and autonomous systems lead at Tharsus Group, recently asked Ahti about his plans for Starship and the future of last-mile delivery. Here are excerpts from that interview on delivery robots.

Hannah: Is there a delivery paradigm shift on the horizon? Without exposing your “secret sauce” — what is Starship’s proposition to potential partners?

Heinla: Yes, definitely. It’s undeniable that automated delivery methods are producing a paradigm shift, and not so surprisingly — consumers like it, and businesses are reacting to it really well. Our general value proposition can essentially be boiled down to convenience and cost.

Cost is obviously a big driver in the delivery industry. It’s the lowering of operating and technology costs that has fueled the rise of the last-mile delivery segment in particular.

Historically, it’s been really hard for large delivery companies to see the wood for the trees when it comes to optimizing delivery costs further down, as wages are increasing and so forth — but today, at the same time as wages are increasing, the cost of technology is going down, opening up a realm of opportunities for high-technology products to disrupt this industry.

We see there is no natural lower-bound cost for robotic delivery. Ultimately, the new introduction of robotic technologies such as the Starship bot and its ability to reduce the cost of deliveries to pennies on the pound means that this shift is inevitable.

Convenience also plays a significant role. We’re now living in a world where consumer choice is king; people want their items really quickly, and they want to know when they’re going to get them. So the old customer journey model of “I know I’m going to get my delivery on Wednesday. But I don’t know when on Wednesday — and the delivery driver can’t leave the package on my doorstep. Do I really need to be home for the whole day to get my delivery?” is essentially dead.

Starship offers 15-minute delivery windows, issuing real-time delivery updates as standard. That’s something which would actually be very costly to match with traditional delivery methods.

Eventually, I can see our product evolving to suit various delivery models, but actually, in the shorter term, it’s quite clear that we can cover most of the needs with just one model. It just makes it a lot simpler if you have one model, especially if you’re conducting smaller pilots and so forth.

It makes sense to look at different models when we’re at the stage of manufacturing quantities of hundreds of thousands or something like that. Right now, we’re not quite at that point.

Hannah: What competitive advantage do Starship’s delivery robots provide over other delivery models? And, what does your short-term growth strategy look like as a result of your recent £16.5 million [$17.2 million] investment round? ...

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