Robots are now allowed, by law, to cruise on sidewalks and crosswalks to deliver packages without human assistance across the state of Florida, according to a new bill signed by Governor Rick Scott. Florida is now the fourth state to pass a law that allows small, ground-based robots to navigate sidewalks to deliver packages.

On June 23, Florida's Governor Rick Scott signed House Bill 1027, which allows robots, or what the law refers to as "personal delivery devices," to drive on sidewalks and use crosswalks autonomously in order to deliver packages to people's homes. According to the new law, the bots must be electrically-powered, weigh less than 80 pounds before cargo, and have a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour. The delivery robots can drive autonomously, but the law requires that each robot is equipped with technology that allows humans to monitor the robot and take control if necessary.

The robots must yield to pedestrians and traffic and the bots are not allowed to use highways or roads, the bill says.

Last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed Wisconsin Act 13 into law, which is similar to the law just passed in Florida and allows robots to use the sidewalks and crosswalks all over the state. Earlier this year, Virginia became the first state to pass the robot-delivery law and Idaho followed. All states have 80-pound weight limits, except for Virginia, which has a weight limit of 50 pounds.

Starship Technologies, an Estonian-based company that makes autonomous six-wheeled robots that deliver food and packages, helped bring all four laws to life. Earlier this year, Recode first reported that Starship hired lobbyists to work on the proposals in Virginia, Idaho, Wisconsin, and Florida.

"Starship offered industry insight to assist state legislatures with the brand new delivery robot laws," says Henry Harris-Burland, vice president of marketing at Starship. Harris-Burland says Starship's lobbyists brought data and experience from Starship's rovers, which have traveled 40,000 miles while running pilots in 70 cities.

Before Starship runs a pilot in a new city, it seeks permission through a permit, city approval, or a formal law, says Harris-Burland.

Starship's robots, which are currently making deliveries in Redwood City, San Carlos, Sunnyvale, Washington D.C., London, Hamburg, Tallinn, and Bern, weigh 40 pounds without cargo. Other robot delivery companies, including Marble, make robots that weigh more than 80 pounds, Recode reports. The weight limits in these four states could effectively cut out the competition.

Harris-Burland says the company did not propose the 80-pound limit, nor was it a business strategy to make things harder for competitors.

"These limits are decided by the state," says Harris-Burland. "Starship welcomes competition, and in fact there are over 10 delivery robot companies now around the world, making it an exciting time for the growing industry. Our delivery robot weighs about half of the stated weight limit."

Senator Jeff Brandes (R-Florida) says he worked on the bill for about a year with Starship's lobbyists. He says the weight limit was initially 50 pounds, but he says he increased it to 80 pounds to add flexibility in case a competitor wanted to enter the market. Brandes says the law was made while using Starship's robot as an example of what the ground-based delivery drones would look like.

"At the time, Starship was the only company so we weren't contemplating competitors. But if the weight limit is a hurdle to competition, we can change the law," says Brandes. "We included a weight limit to assure the legislators that we wouldn't have 500 pound vehicles knocking people over."

Brandes says the bill allows for local jurisdictions to enforce and adapt the law and he says he doesn't see a problem in changing it.

Starship is not operating in Idaho, Virginia, or Wisconsin, but the company will launch a pilot test in Florida sometime this year, says Harris-Burland. He would not reveal which state is next on the list, but he said to "watch this space" for developments.

Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, who co-found Skype, launched Starship in 2014. Starship's goal is to have robot fleets in each city it serves that can deliver packages and groceries in 30 minutes or less. The robots have been tested in over 70 cities around the world.

Published on: Jun 22, 2017