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Video: Watch the ‘Robovan’ from Starship Technology and Mercedes-Benz


Starship Technologies has teamed with Mercedes-Benz to create a prototype van that allows eight of Starship’s small delivery robots to be stored inside a Sprinter van. The ‘mothership van’ was revealed in Stuttgart on September 7th.
From a central location the van will be able to unload the delivery vehicles, which will complete the last leg of the journey to avoid city centre traffic. The Starship robots will be able to travel two to three miles from the delivery van, and the company claims this will help deliver 400 packages across a nine-hour shift.

Watch the video here:

Instead of completing door-to-door delivery, the vans will drive to pre-agreed locations to load and unload goods and then dispatch the robots to complete the final step for on-demand delivery. Upon making the customer delivery, the robots will autonomously find their way back to the van for re-loading – guided by Starship operators based at a control room. Nine cameras on each robot make sure the operators can see obstacles and problems en route.

Starship has calculated a very impressive drop rate which would need to be seen to be believed. The company says the robots will be loaded with their goods in the ‘Robovan’ using a racking system that enables “400 packages to be delivered every 9 hour shift, compared to 180 packages using previously available methods, an increase of over 120%”.

robot-van-starship“A typical van delivery today involves driving to a delivery area, and then spending an entire day on door-to-door deliveries. By leaving the door-to- door part to delivery robots the van drivers’ productivity will significantly rise while reducing congestion on the streets and CO2 emissions” said Allan Martinson, Starship’s Chief Operating Officer.

At this stage only one van has been built and initial testing has taken place, Starship said. There are no plans yet for commercial use of the vans in a delivery situation.

Mercedes said its Sprinter van incorporates a “conveyor racking system” that can be loaded with a total of 54 load carriers for the Starship bots. As you can see in the video above, the van is fitted with ramps that allow the bots to trundle in and out of the vehicle.

Starship delivery robots are being signed up

While a number of companies, including Google and Amazon, are looking to use airborne drones for deliveries, Starship believes its automatons –which are effectively autonomous boxes on wheels – provide a better solution. In terms of weight, floor level robots can carry up to 10 kilos, while airborne drones are likely to have a 1 kilo limit. To date, the firm, which launched in 2015, has signed deals with Just Eat, Hermes, Metro Group and to bring its deliveries to the UK.

Starship Technologies’ delivery robots have now covered over 12,000km around the world in 12 countries and 47 cities, coming into contact with over 1.2 million people.

Our view

Keith Cornell, Starship’s Chief Commercial Officer spoke at the Deliver One conference in Luxembourg recently talking through the ‘Starship Math’ that he hoped delegates would take on board. The company has calculated the potential cost savings of using robots for delivery. He says that on demand delivery currently costs $6 to $12, while the efficiency of robots completing the last mile brings that figure down to just $2 to $3. The accuracy of the pre-arranged drop could make possible five minute delivery slots he said. Manpower is vastly reduced, fuel bills cut and the cost of failed deliveries all but eliminated, he argued.

Starship Technologies at Deliver One conference

Cornell (pictured left) enthused about the Robovan launch saying: “With vans loaded with robots, instead of a hub, now it’s a mobile hub which can speed up the delivery process even further. The prototypes we have are absolutely incredible.”

Labour cost savings do need to be looked into further because “banks of operators” will be needed to run the robots, redirecting them around tree roots etc, said Cornell. He had to agree that the robots are also very exposed to theft and vandalism, although fitted with 9 cameras, and with the ability to “scream” thanks to speaker microphones, anyone messing with the robots would soon learn not to be tempted. So far no incidents have occurred he said.

At the same conference Drone Evangelist from Copter Express Andrew Sholokhavich, talked up the benefits of drone usage in delivery, focusing on how they will cut down on the need for people in the coming years. “Today we have developed a drone that can be operated by one guy. By 2017 he can operate 12 drones,” said Sholokhavich. “In the new consumer paradigm we will have far more robotic automation,” he said referencing autonomous trucks, smart fridges etc.

Both Cornell and Sholokhavich spoke of the “carbon-lite” nature of drones/robots saying cutting emissions was a big plus for e-logistics leaders to consider going ahead.

At the conference the delegates – around 300 global e-commerce and e-delivery executives in the auditorium – were asked to vote on the conference app on the issue: Do you believe drones are viable? The final result was 60% yes, and 40% no. The general feeling was that this technology is a few years off general commercial use, but it is interesting, because it’s hard to ignore the benefits of potential manpower cost reduction, and traffic and CO2 reductions. Amazon also made reference to these benefits at Deliver One.

One UK e-commerce cargo manager told “Drones and robots might be something feasible for 2022, but I have delivery issues that I need to solve today, so they can offer no practical help at this stage.”

Photo credits

  • Starship Technologies
  • Alison Clements at Deliver One

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