If pedestrians and pets weren't enough, get ready to see sidewalks filled with little rolling robots

Starship Technologies, a U.K.-based startup, announced Wednesday that it's deploying its first fleet of delivery bots in London and three other European cities this month on behalf of a handful of companies. The robots are roughly the size of an Igloo cooler and can hold about two shopping bags' worth of food or other goods. The contents will be locked inside via a passcode provided to the intended recipient.

Though the six-wheeled bots can traverse curbs and rocks, they aren't intended for cross-country travel. Instead, they'll be used for what the company calls the "last-mile" industry, meaning the final leg of a package's trip from a delivery hub to the recipient's doorstep. Just Eat, Europe's largest food-delivery company, will be one of Starship's first clients.

Starship, created by Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, says its goal is to get the cost of on-demand delivery down to about $1 per package, from the current level of about $15 in London. The startup has manufactured several dozen robots and has said that it plans to have 1,000 by the end of this year. A representative declined to disclose pricing, but the current business plan is to charge clients a monthly fee that includes servicing and pilots.

The 55-employee startup's plan is eventually to have the robots, which travel at around 4 miles per hour, run autonomously. For now, they'll be controlled by an employee who remotely watches feeds from the bot's nine cameras. Over time, the machines learn which routes work best and become more adept at using the autopilot feature. All the robots will communicate their routes with one another to help the fleet as a whole learn more quickly.

The cameras will also serve a second purpose: They'll be able to record anyone who tries to break in and steal the robot's contents. Should that happen, the bots are programmed to alert the local police.

Of course, there's only so much that cameras and police alerts can prevent--and it likely won't stop troublemakers looking to vandalize the robots. Last year, a hitchhiking robot successfully traveled across much of Europe and part of the Northeast U.S. before getting its electronic brains bashed in when it reached Philadelphia.

But Starship, which was founded in 2014, says that over the course of its testing the last nine months, the robots encountered more than 400,000 people without incident. The company told Quartz that two-thirds of people ignored the robot entirely after an initial glance, and the rest reacted mostly favorably.

As friendly as it looks, a robot rolling down the sidewalk will certainly be jarring to some. But if the initial run of these bots is successful, this might soon be our reality. Other startups, such as Dispatch and Sidewalk, are also developing automated delivery robots. James Roy Poulter, co-founder of London food delivery startup Pronto, one of the companies partnering with Starship, told Quartz that he envisions the robots replacing his company's fleet of delivery scooters and bikes. Starship says that it will begin testing the robots in the U.S. later this year.

Amazon has flirted with the idea of drone delivery for years, but tough federal regulations have prevented that plan from gaining much traction. Robots that move along the ground don't face such restrictions and are reportedly much cheaper to own and operate. Drone delivery has long been a dream of Jeff Bezos's, but if these bots do the job, don't be surprised if Amazon and other big retailers turn their eyes from the sky to the ground.

Published on: Jul 6, 2016