Forget drones: a new European startup is betting on friendly, neighborhood robots to deliver goods.
On Monday, Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis announced the launch of their newest venture, Starship Technologies. The company, based out of Tallinn, Estonia, manufactures autonomous plastic robots programmed to deliver parcels to customers' doorsteps.
Unlike drones, these vehicles run on streets and are only meant to travel short distances. That's because much of the cost of a delivery service can actually come from the last mile (anywhere between $5 and $15, Heinla estimates, or as much as 28 percent of the total transportation cost, according to the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals).
A number of major retailers, including Amazon and Walmart, are eager to test out drone delivery, but Starship is confident that robots are a cheaper and safer solution.
Heinla plans to partner up with most major e-commerce retailers, though he declined to discuss specific companies. The pilot program will launch in the U.K. and the U.S. in 2016.
"It is hard to make a drone that is actually cost-effective," says Heinla, largely because drones require complex engineering to remain airborne. Robots, by contrast, are a "simpler technology," and the stakes are lower if it breaks down en route.
The robot effectively does the work of a car or delivery truck, but to manufacture, it's closer to the cost of a vacuum cleaner. The company aims to drive down the costs of delivery services by a factor of 15, charging just $1 per trip.
Starship has spent the last sixteen months prototyping its flagship robot, which has a kinder, gentler feel than most. Fully equipped with nine cameras, six wheels, and a tail-like antenna, the roughly 25-pound machine can carry up to 20 pounds of freight (that's equivalent to two grocery bags). "A lot of existing robots look industrial," Heinla explains. "We need to build a robot that looks good, that people will accept as part of their everyday environment."
The robots will deploy from "hubs" across cities, or intermediate warehouses for the company's retail partners. Starship will send out a text message to the recipient when the package is ready to be delivered, and a follow-up text message once it arrives at their destination (within less than half an hour.) Users can also track the location of the robot using a geolocation tool built into the mobile app.
Heinla, 43, is a prolific tech founder, who first learned how to program computers from his mother at the age of 10. Prior to launching Skype, which was ultimately sold to Microsoft for a whopping $8.5 billion in 2011, he started two other firms: Kazaa, a file-sharing service, and Joltid, a content delivery network.
"I've always been a fan of unconventional solutions," he said. "The idea was not to join IBM or any big companies. I always had my own path."
To date, Starship has not taken any outside funding, but Heinla says the team is currently in talks with venture capitalists for an initial round.