Robots will soon be delivering groceries in Washington, DC

Order a grocery delivery in the Washington D.C. area in the coming months and you could find yourself opening the door to a self-driving robot.

The company behind the wheel-based autonomous bot is about to start testing grocery and restaurant takeout deliveries in the East Coast city after it became the first in the U.S. to greenlight use of the diminutive delivery vehicle, Re/code reported this week.

Built by Starship Technologies – a London-based company started by two Skype co-founders – the trundling robot uses nine cameras, an array of sensors, and GPS software to navigate its route. The maps, compiled by Starship, are said to be accurate to the nearest inch, though if the robot has any unexpected problems on the way to its destination, a human operator will be on hand to take control remotely.

Starship had hoped to get permission to use the robot in San Francisco, but the company was reportedly put off by the city’s demand that it pay a hefty $66 permit fee for every side of a city block that it wanted to use. Washington officials are charging no such fee, though it does stipulate that the robot mustn’t exceed 10 mph. Perfect, as it only has a top speed of 4 mph.

But such a slow speed means deliveries could take a long time over longer distances. With this in mind, the team partnered with Mercedes-Benz to build a specially designed van capable of holding eight of the robots and up to 54 deliveries. The bots will be driven to an appropriate location close to the delivery addresses, whereupon they’ll travel back and forth, taking ordered items to customers until all the deliveries have been made.

The Washington trial won’t be the first for Starship’s delivery robot. It’s also being tested by Switzerland’s postal service, and has been delivering pizza in Estonia, too.

A growing number of companies are looking at how robotic technology can help with last-mile deliveries, with some solutions focusing on the use of autonomous quadcopters or similar kinds of flying machines. However, strict guidelines issued recently by the Federal Aviation Administration currently forbid drones from flying beyond the line of sight of the operator, suggesting services like the one proposed by Amazon could be a ways off.

As for Starship’s ground-based solution, its biggest problem may be dealing with ne’er-do-wells who want to either steal the robot’s delivery, steal the entire machine, or simply give it a good bashing. After all, remember poor ol’ Hitchbot?

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