The University of Pittsburgh has paused its recently launched robot delivery program with Starship after the autonomous rovers impeded the movement of people in wheelchairs.
According to WESA in Pittsburgh:
Pitt doctoral student and wheelchair user Emily Ackerman said on Monday that she got trapped on Forbes Avenue as traffic approached because a Starship Technologies robot was blocking the only accessible entrance to the sidewalk.
WESA also wrote that this follows another incident earlier this month at Pitt when Alisa Grishman, who is also in a wheelchair, said she was blocked on a sidewalk by one of Starship’s robots.
In response, the school and Starship have pulled the robots from the street for further review. After the publication of this post, Starship sent us the following statement: “Starship reviewed the footage and confirmed that Emily was able to access passage onto the sidewalk.”
In addition to the University of Pittsburgh, Starship’s robots are now roaming around the University of Houston, Purdue, George Mason University and Northern Arizona University. We have not heard of any other similar incidents at this time. George Mason, in fact, more than doubled its robot fleet earlier this year.
Starship incorporates different design features and technology to make its robot/human interactions safe. The robots are designed to be the width of the average person’s shoulders, so they don’t take up too much room, they move at a walking pace, and live human teleoperators can take over and drive the robot should it get stuck.
But as this incident at Pitt highlights, more real world testing needs to be conducted before we see a bunch of robots scurrying around outside of campuses and on packed city streets. Let’s not forget that last year Starship rival, Kiwi, had one of robots accidentally catch fire on a street near the University of California at Berkeley.
Ironically, autonomous robots have great promise to make delivery more accessible to everyone, especially those who are infirmed or otherwise housebound. Starship and other delivery robot companies now need to make sure that they can disrupt the delivery industry without dangerously disrupting the lives of others.
UPDATE: The original story used a statement provided to WESA. We replaed it with the statement sent directly to The Spoon.