Like it or not, delivery robots are coming to a street near you, but they still have to hurdle a number of barriers, both physical and regulatory, before making it to most pavements.
Startups in the space are exploring how they can survive attacks from vandals, avoid urban hazards and navigate complex road systems in densely-populated areas, but some of the most vital issues can be overlooked by those they don't directly affect.
Starship Technologies has been studying one of these challenges. The company has collaborated with the UK charity Guide Dogs on the first test of how autonomous delivery services interact with assistance dogs on the street.
The pilot project placed the robots and guide dogs in real-life scenarios in Milton Keynes, including meetings from in front and behind, overtaking one another and approaching each other at a crossing.
“We wanted to ensure guide dogs would not react differently to our robots than anything else they typically encounter on the pavement," Starship Technologies CEO Lex Bayer tells Techworld. "We put the guide dogs in a variety of different situations with our delivery robots meeting them on the pavements as well as road crossings. The guide dogs were being walked by visually impaired people."
None of the trials produced adverse reactions. Most of the dogs stopped before the robot approached.
"The guide dogs behaved calmly around our robots, no matter what scenario we created," adds Bayer. "For example, even when the dogs and robots were traveling head-on with one another on the pavement, the dogs were not fazed.
"Our delivery robots have encountered over 600,000 non-working dogs around the world and we found the reactions to be very similar to those experienced with the guide dogs."
Bayer wants to conduct more extensive testing with a spectrum of visual impairments and guide dog users, but the initial findings suggest that the dogs can be trained to deal with the robots in the same way that they are taught to handle any other obstacles.
Robot delivery is on its way
Milton Keynes made a logical test site for the project. In April 2018, Starship Technologies chose the town for the launch of the world’s first robot delivery service. Hundreds of ground drones were unleashed on Milton Keynes streets, where they now deliver parcels on-demand to around 5,000 homes.
Bayer says that the interactions delivery robots had with the dogs was very similar to those they have with humans. Although some Starship devices have been kicked by pedestrians, he's pleased with how the public has embraced their new companions on the pavement.
"Around 70 percent of people don't even react to the robots, which is mainly because they are designed to seamlessly co-exist with people,” he says.
"The robots take up as much space on a pavement as a pedestrian would and travel at the same average walking speed as a person so they essentially blend in with pedestrian traffic on the pavement.
"However, the feedback we get from people who do interact with the robots is wholly positive. Children often go to greet them when they arrive with a delivery, draw pictures of them, write and put thank you notes inside them and take photos with them."