We are a little less than a month away from our food robotics summit, ArticulATE, happening on April 16 in San Francisco. The excitement around Spoon HQ is palpable because we have locked in a fantastic lineup of speakers, including today’s Q&A guest Ryan Tuohy, the Senior VP of Business Development at Starship.
Starship’s autonomous rover bots deliver snacks, groceries and packages to corporate and college campuses and even out to the general public in Milton Keynes in the UK. In advance of Tuohy’s talk on-stage at ArticulATE, we wanted to set the stage and learn a little more about, well, what Starship has learned from making all these deliveries (like how big to make its ‘bot!).
THE SPOON: Starship has been running deliveries for a while now on Intuit’s corporate campus, in Milton Keynes in the UK, and most recently you started at George Mason University. What have you learned about how people use and interact with robot delivery?
TUOHY: One of the things we’re proud of is how happy customers are when the robot arrives with their order – every interaction is overwhelmingly one of delight and we’ve received thank you notes and special drawings of robots from every location where we operate. At GMU specifically, the bots have become famous across social media, with many students posting pictures/videos of their deliveries.
For students at George Mason University, the bots provide a low cost and convenient service to let them spend time doing what they want, rather than waiting in line for food or skipping a meal because they’re too busy, GMU students can have food delivered anywhere on campus and use that extra time to hang out with friends, study or take a break.
In some locations, like Milton Keynes, some of our most popular customers are parents who struggle to leave the house because of their children. It’s a lot easier to get a robot delivery than try and get two young kids in the car, find parking, walk round the grocery store and then drive back. It’s a lot more environmentally friendly as well.
The vast majority of people notice the robot on the sidewalk and simply pass by it. Initially, some people take a selfie or a photo of the robot. This effect diminishes over time as people in the particular location become familiar with seeing the robot in the area.
As you talk with campuses like George Mason, what are the concerns they have about robot delivery and how do you alleviate them?
At George Mason University, some people have asked whether the robots can handle rough weather conditions such as rain and snow. One of the reasons we brought the robots to GMU was for this very reason. The robots have safely traveled over 150,000 miles around the world and completed thousands of deliveries regardless of weather conditions.
Additionally, everyone’s first test when they see the robot on the sidewalk is to check if the robot will stop in time, when [they’re] blocking its path. But each robot travels at 4mph and has a ‘situational awareness bubble’ around it with a range of sensors that can detect obstacles like dogs, pedestrians, bikers, and is able to either maneuver around them or stop at a safe distance.
Is there a sweet spot when designing a rover delivery robot, in terms of size and speed, and have you hit that, or is it more of a moving, evolving target?
Robotic delivery is affordable, convenient and environmentally friendly. Starship’s robots are intelligent and designed to seamlessly co-exist with humans in the community. They are purposefully about as wide as a human shoulder width when walking on the sidewalk and travel at walking pace (4mph max).
Starship has designed and built our robots with a vast amount of advanced proprietary technology, including a combination of computer vision, sensor fusion and machine learning for seamless navigational and situational awareness. The company’s proprietary mapping process enables the robots to understand their exact location to the nearest inch.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about robot delivery?
One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding autonomous delivery is around security. Many people believe that robots will be stolen but the reality is very different from this. In tens of thousands of autonomous deliveries, we’ve not had any robots stolen. The robot has many theft prevention measure to stop this from happening, including 10 cameras, sirens (like a car alarm), tracking to the nearest inch and the lid is of course locked at all times. It would be a big effort to steal a robot and get it home without being caught, only to find some milk and eggs in the basket!
What is your favorite fictional robot?
I enjoy the classic R2D2 robots from Star Wars. Who doesn’t enjoy a cute robot that can help you on all your expeditions? We are already at the point where robots can deliver packages and food to your doorstep. It’s amazing to see technology we once imagined has now become a reality.