You've probably had at least one shipping mishap--maybe an attempted delivery while you weren't home that you then had to try to track down, or a package with a tracking status of "delivered" that was nowhere to be found. According to a study by home security startup August, nearly 11 million homeowners have a package stolen from their homes each year.
Starship Technologies thinks it has a solution. The startup gained internet notoriety in 2016 with its fun rolling robots, which have been autonomously cruising along sidewalks in several cities, transporting food and groceries from local stores and restaurants. Beginning this week, Starship's bots will start delivering mail. The company says the service will launch in the United Kingdom first and will come to the Bay Area by the end of the year.
A number of companies have been trying to disrupt so-called last-mile logistics, which refers to a package's journey from a local sorting facility to your door. According to a recent report from Business Insider, that short final leg accounts for more than half of a shipment's total delivery cost. Amazon has been exploring making delivery more efficient using everything from drones to automated vans. UPS is developing similar air-based solutions, and even Google has gotten into the fray with its Wing project.
Starship is one of several startups taking a more grounded approach. It's launching the mail delivery service with a subscription-based model, so customers must pay a monthly fee (£7.99--about $10--in the U.K.; pricing in the U.S. to be determined). When you sign up, you'll be given the address of a Starship storage facility nearby, which you'll enter as the shipping address when ordering online. You'll get a notification when your package arrives at the facility, and you can then schedule the delivery to your house or apartment for a time when you know you'll be home.
Then, instead of a delivery person, your package will arrive via a robot about the size of a cooler. The bots, which travel at a fairly nonthreatening 4 mph, are locked until you press a button within Starship app on your phone.
Starship's bots have already been delivering meals on the Intuit Corporate Campus in Mountain View and in Washington, D.C., where the startup has deals with Postmates and Doordash. Starship has a number of partnerships throughout Europe, including one with supermarket chain Co-op through which it delivers groceries to customers in London.
Starship was founded by Skype co-founders Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla in 2014. In June, the company hired former Airbnb head of business development Lex Bayer as CEO. In his first interview since taking the position, Bayer recently told Inc. that he envisions mail delivery becoming a big part of Starship's business model.
"E-commerce is booming, but the infrastructure around it hasn't really been able to keep up," he said. "Our vision is to be the central hub for all local delivery, be that for packages, for food, for groceries, or for local stores." The idea is for that to include delivery from all types of nearby shops--so if you need a screwdriver or run out of baking soda, a bot can bring it to you for a fee. "Once we install the robots in a location," he said, "we want to keep them busy."
Launching at scale will be an uphill battle. After the company introduced its robots in San Francisco in 2016 via a food delivery publicity stunt, the city passed strict regulations the following year that, among other things, capped the total number of delivery bots that could operate there at a given time to nine. Many states currently require that bots roaming public areas be controlled by humans.
Starship has been actively lobbying to change legislation. Over the past two years, it's worked with politicians in Florida, Idaho, Virginia, and Wisconsin to pass laws that allow delivery bots to operate autonomously. The company doesn't yet have bots on the ground in any of those states.
Starship's rolling robots use a combination of cameras, radar, ultrasound, and GPS to avoid obstacles, such as people, animals, plants, and potholes. They send information to Starship's database each time they make a journey, helping continually refine the company's maps. Human operators monitor the fleet and can take control if needed.
For security, they're also equipped with alarms and a P.A. system that a Starship employee can operate if a passerby starts acting suspiciously--though Bayer claims the bots have traveled more than 125,000 miles and made 20,000 deliveries so far without a single vandalization or attempted break-in.
Time will tell if customers are willing to pay more money on top of standard shipping costs. Even if they are, the company might soon be up against a growing number of delivery startups. Robby Technologies has partnered with Doordash, Postmates, and Instacart on meal delivery in several cities. Marble, which initially focused on food delivery as well, began referring to itself as a "last mile logistics company" earlier this year. Dispatch has been testing its messenger service on college campuses.
Starship has $42 million in funding from Daimler, Morpheus Ventures, and Matrix Partners and other investors. The 200-person company is headquartered in San Francisco with offices in the U.K. and Estonia.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized how Starship first introduced its robots in San Francisco in 2016. The company used the bots to deliver food as part of a media event.