August 22, 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.

Starship CEO Ahti Heinla discussed robotic delivery at CES 2017.

Robotic delivery will soon be an everyday occurrence, said Starship CEO Ahti Heinla at CES 2017.

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?

Heinla: All of those delivery models that you mentioned have a place in the future — so it’s not that the Starship approach is going to replace everything. Different delivery methods are suitably different. Bike couriers are certainly optimal in very dense urban environments as they can overcome gridlocks and traffic jams.

But if you’re talking about the suburbs, for example, when the traffic is comparatively low, and it’s relatively easy for an autonomous vehicle to operate there, then I certainly think that automated robots are better placed for the job.

As for drones, I generally think that people don’t like drones flying over their backyards with other people’s parcels dangling from them, and they’re also susceptible to operating cost issues. In general, flying machines are difficult to make — they need to be ultra-reliable because there are so many different safety concerns, and aviation regulations are difficult ones to overcome. We’re steering around all of these issues by staying on the ground, this also allows us to use simpler technologies.

Hannah: Do you think Starship’s delivery robots will make it onto the roads?

Starship's delivery robot could branch into multiple applications.

Heinla: It’s a timing issue. So, in the long run, yes! But I don’t really believe that autonomous vehicles in a generic unattended urban environment — so, Level 5 autonomy — will actually make deliveries anytime soon. OK, maybe a little bit in isolated trials, but I don’t think that this will be something that will happen next year.

Whereas, with the Starship model, our bots will actually be operating next year. So, I predict that it’s going to be a while before roadworthy autonomous delivery vehicles are prevalent on U.K. roads, and I think this view is supported by the majority of industry predictions.

So, in general, we’re still just in testing mode right now. Starship is obviously expanding, so we’re getting robots into service and building all of the infrastructure around them ready for scaling, with the aim that next year is definitely the year where you’ll start to see our robots appear in large numbers.

We’re hiring a lot of people as a result of our latest investment round, and talent is definitely a key driver for success for any company at this stage.

Hannah: Are you positioning Starship to own this instant delivery category? Or, are you working with partners to disrupt other areas of last-mile delivery?

Heinla: We want to take care of the instant delivery segment of the last mile, but obviously we need to work with partners to do this. Our commercial partners are usually producing or selling the things that we are delivering.

Like we touched on before, instant delivery is being driven by rising consumer expectations, so a lot of businesses are looking to offer this level of service to create competitive advantage. So it’s a combination. Other areas of last-mile delivery are also very appealing, but one thing is for sure, we cannot work in complete isolation.

We’re in contact with a lot of people in the industry. More than a 1,000 companies have contacted us with the intentions of partnering. They all operate with various business models, so we’re exploring many different things, which is really exciting to be part of.

More on Delivery Robots:

Hannah: How far away are your delivery robots from Level 5 sidewalk autonomy?

Heinla: We’re practically there. So we can drive without being supervised at certain places, and we’ve done so for a while now in various locations across the world. And we’re going to expand this service further.

When I said that “towards the end of this year, we will look to scale our operation,” I definitely don’t mean that we’ll scale with tons of people following the robots and supervising them all the time. We are fairly close; you could say it’s happening right now.

Hannah: Have you developed all of this in-house? No one has attempted this in the past, so everything you’re doing is first of kind in nature.

Heinla: Absolutely, we’re doing a lot of things on our own. In fact, some people think that we’re doing too much on our own! But I think the strategy we’ve chosen in our product development is right.

Note: For the full interview, visit