January 17, 2017      

LAS VEGAS — 2016 was a good year for all three panelists at the “Delivery Robots Knocking at Your Door” session at the Consumer Electronics Show here this month. Each innovator in the first session of the Robotics Conference at CES 2017 has taken a different route to delivery robots, but their technologies and markets are maturing fast.

Starship Technologies is testing its ground-delivery robots in nearly 60 cities worldwide, Savioke’s room-service robots are in 50 hotels, and CyPhy Works is conducting tests of aerial drone deliveries with United Parcel Service Inc.

How did the founders of these companies assess their prospective user base, and what can we expect from delivery robots this year?

Business Takeaways:

  • The leaders of CyPhy Works, Savioke, and Starship Technologies all said at CES 2017 that they expect delivery robots to become more routine this year.
  • The market for automated deliveries will grow from $15 million in 2015 to $54 million by 2020, predicts Technavio.
  • Robotic deliveries have some safety and technical hurdles to overcome, but testing is occurring, and major partners such as UPS and Mercedes-Benz are preparing for new markets.

Delivery robot opportunities

“You all have different backgrounds,” observed moderator Steve Crowe, managing editor of Robotics Trends (sister site to Robotics Business Review). “Why did you come to delivery robots?”

“The problem is we saw a lot of cool robotics tech in YouTube videos, but not a lot of business opportunities,” said Ahti Heinla, the CEO of Starship Technologies who formerly worked at Skype. “We identified three main areas where robots could be used in big ways in everyday lives … service, agriculture, and delivery.”

“When you look at the numbers — UPS delivers 15 million packages a day,” said Helen Greiner, chief technology officer of drone provider CyPhy Works and co-founder of iRobot. “Nobody thinks drones will replace the whole infrastructure, but they will add value.”

“I came from [research lab] Willow Garage. PR2 was cool, but at a quarter-million a pop, there was the question of how to get robots in the world,” recalled Steve Cousins, CEO of Savioke. “There’s the tech curve — we could now get robots into unstructured environments, and the service industry was an untouched opportunity.”

“We also thought going in that we’d be able to justify the value in savings,” he continued. “What we found in hospitality was that, while we saved some labor, improving the guest experience was more valuable.”

“Hotels find that room service is a money-loser,” Cousins said. “With a delivery robot, it’s a chance to use an outside kitchen and get the same service to a guest in the hotel. This helps hotels keep stars for ratings.”

“With a delivery robot, it’s not asking for a tip or judging what I’m wearing, and it gets there fast,” said Cousins. “In practice, a person is washing windows while waiting to make deliveries in a smaller hotel. Why interrupt those tasks?”

“What is the future map of robotic delivery?” asked an audience member.

“There will be multiple robot delivery models,” answered Heinla. “Depending on the pizza, or versus an Amazon order. It won’t replace everything.”

Proving safety

Operating aerial drones beyond line of sight isn’t yet legal, said Greiner.

“But testing is completely legal — it wouldn’t have been a year ago, so we’re making progress,” she said. “We’ll unrestrict more airspace gradually. We’re doing the work today with robots in the field, hundreds of hours, proving that they’re safe.”

“Is it realistic to assume that in the near future, flying drones will be inherently safe, so that even if one falls on someone, it won’t hurt them?” Heinla asked.

“The main idea is to keep them from falling,” Greiner replied. “With six rotors, we have redundancy, backup. We have to prepare for something to go wrong even if it doesn’t.”

Delivery robots from Starship are being tested in 59 cities.

Starship Technologies is testing its delivery robots in nearly 60 cities.

For Savioke, the idea is to keep the technology as simple and robust as possible, said Cousins.

“By making the locking bin open automatically, usability goes up to 100 percent,” he said. “The RIA has for a long time talked about safety for industrial robots. The first day in the field, we saw a child with no shoes on. We went back and added an active bumper.”

“We did a full risk assessment, like what NASA does,” Cousins explained. “For every piece of harm, what will the robot do to avoid that? And if that system fails? We have three levels of redundancy.”

Operating in the great outdoors

“We can fly 24/7 in Boston — our drones are weather-, water-, dust-, and sandstorm-proof,” said CyPhy’s Greiner. “We won’t deliver in a hurricane or nor’easter.”

“Starship isn’t building a fully autonomous robot,” Heinla said. “Ninety percent of the time, it’s driving on its own, and 10 percent from the control center. We haven’t had bad enough weather for full manual control, but in really dense fog, for example, I could imagine not running it autonomously.”

“Regulations on sidewalks vary very much, especially in the U.S. and Europe,” he said. “In some cases, we need permission from the city, but some mayors are openly inviting us on Twitter to come.”

Although Savioke’s Relay operates indoors, like Starship’s parcel-delivery robot, it moves at a cautious speed.

“The record is 200 mph for remote-control cars,” said Cousins, “but for safety’s sake, at 4 mph, we’ve got to get regular deliveries going.”

One attendee asked when consumers should expect a driverless UPS truck with delivery robots or drones.

“It’s hard to roll it all out at once,” said Cousins. “Self-driving cars are the other half.”

“Heterogeneous systems will eventually have it all covered,” added Greiner.

“It’s one part of the logistics change. Starship has great cooperation with Mercedes-Benz,” Heinla said. “It actually doesn’t stop there … there will be a day not far away when a package will be automatically dispatched from warehouse far away, automatically loaded on truck or plane, automatically trucked or flown. Then with a robot or drone, it will get to you without any human touching it.”

“It’s like a Star Trek replicator — ‘tea, Earl Grey, hot,'” he joked. “You want something, and it appears now. Amazon approximates that; a microwave is a step in the same direction. We’ve optimized environments a lot of the past couple hundred years. It’s now a question of when and how fast.”

Delivery robots come home?

“What about personal delivery robots?” asked Crowe.

“It’s a question of scale,” said Cousins. “Who’s going to pay for it? If you have an app to call robots, you won’t use it unless you have a need for it.”

Intel Helps Raise $15M for Savioke's Hotel Robot

Savioke’s Relay will soon expand beyond hospitality.

“There are practical reasons to get businesses to sign up,” he added. “With robots as a service [RaaS], we just send the robot to a hotel. For a fee, we make sure everything works. It’s included in that price, and the end user doesn’t have to hire an IT department.”

“Quite a few people get hobby drones, and part of the maker movement helps the adoption of robots in general,” said Greiner. “But businesses deliver millions of packages a day and have needs to get robots to the customer.”

Greiner said that she was not worried about competition from Amazon Prime Air for drone deliveries. “They’re helping to create the market,” she said. “If they succeed, we all succeed.”

“To reach cost, safety, reliability metrics, we have lots of software to optimize,” Cousins said. “It’s not trivial, but it’s doable.”

More on Delivery Robots:

A banner year to come

2017 looks to be another strong year for the three robotics companies.

“At CyPhy Works, we’re building robots and drones, getting out in the world, and providing drones for the military and persistent drones,” said Greiner. “We’re building up capabilities and reliability of our systems to be good in all environments.”

She added that CyPhy works will also be serving the telecommunications and oil and gas industries, and that its drones already have working autopilots and delivery systems.

People will become more accustomed to robots becoming part of their daily lives, said Cousins.

Savioke Relay and Starship delivery robot

Savioke’s Relay and Starship’s delivery robot bring water to the panelists at CES.

“Our commercial robots have made 75,000 paid deployments, mostly to hotel guests,” he said. “Guests who encounter the robot in the hallway or elevator — those are usually their first encounters.”

“Even with all these companies, most people think [delivery robots are] still far in the future,” Starship’s Heinla said. “It will come to them this year.”

“My biggest prediction for 2017 is that the number of people who have a delivery robot personally help them will double, compared to 2016,” Cousins said. “For Savioke’s part, we plan to install our Relay delivery robot in new markets. Relay will move into other locations, such as residential apartment buildings, offices, elder-care homes, and manufacturing and logistics facilities, in 2017.”

“As robots like Relay become more widespread, far more people will interact with them,” he said. “Within a few years, interacting with a robot will become commonplace. Instead of being a novelty, robots will be accepted by the vast majority of people as simply advanced computers that provide helpful services.”