Starship's sidewalk robot

As semi-autonomous delivery robots wind their way through the streets of Greenwich, a borough of London, England, delivering take-out meals to local diners, we are witness to a small glimpse of how such technology will forever change the food ecosystem.

While Starship Technologies’ partnership with Just Eat, a home delivery service connecting consumers to their favorite restaurants, has received a significant amount of media attention, robotic delivery has far broader—and perhaps more socially significant—possibilities. Starship’s hub-and-spoke vision—that is a scenario where large amounts of goods—in this case, food—are taken to a central location after which an army of semi-autonomous robots take the wares the last quarter mile to individual homes.

Two obvious scenarios of this application of Starship’s innovation are home grocery delivery and bringing needed fresh food to a growing number of food deserts (areas outside the logistical reach of farms and farmers markets). For the home grocery startups such as Instacart, robots allow workers to focus more on careful curation than transporting sacks of produce, canned goods and other staples to local residents. Much the way newspapers set up substations where the daily papers are taken in bundles to individual districts where they are sorted and doled out to kids on bikes, supermarket chains or other food distribution can create a value-chain efficiency that benefits their bottom lines while providing a valuable service.

It’s clear that such a scenario is in Starship Technologies’ plans. In early September, the company announced a partnership with Mercedes-Benz to develop “robot vans” which could bring the hub-and-spoke model to life. According to its press release, Starship said it will work with the German car manufacturer to build a transportation system in which specially-designed Sprinter vans will hold up to eight delivery robots. Based on location density and consumer needs, the vans will make their rounds dropping off, and later picking up, individual robotic delivery agents. While not mentioned in the release, a backend with carefully programmed robust logistical software and a “service center” where multiple robots can be simultaneously monitored will be needed.

A few enhancements would be needed to the current robot agent to truly optimize its capabilities. According to Starship Technologies, the semi-autonomous unit can hold up to 22 pounds and uses the insulation provided by the restaurant or its delivery service. In order to deal with larger deliveries—such as supplies to prep kitchens– or perishables, greater capacity and commercial insulation will need to be added to the units.

Moving from commercial needs to the greater good, the creation of a system to cut down on the growing number of food deserts will require more hands on deck. One of those additional hands might come in the form of delivery drones from the likes of Amazon, already in the business of efficient home delivery. The Seattle-based retail giant prides itself in leaving no address “unaddressable” when it comes to getting goods and services to the far reaches of the planet.

As with previous innovations, advances in food technology—particularly in logistics—first movers don’t always have an advantage. Lurking in the background—some not so subtly—are key players such as incumbents UPS and FedEx, as well as newcomers to the asynchronous delivery transport world including Uber and Lyft. In short order, autonomous vehicles of every shape and size will be in plentiful supply; how entrepreneurs in the food industry deploy them will separate the winners from the losers.