Drones vs. Robots. The Delivery War is on!

Martijn Graat
Martijn Graat

There’s someone at the door with a delivery, but soon, that will change, at least that is what two Skype co-founders, Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, envision with their startup Starship. And most of you probably expect that they want you to look up for your delivery, but that’s not the case.

starship-boyWhile most delivery systems make use of drone technology, Starship intends to use self-driving delivery robots. The robots, they actually call them friendly, will use sidewalks to navigate to their final destination. The maximum radius for delivery is 5 kilometres, and a successful delivery will take between 5 and 30 minutes. They will operate at low speeds and have sensors to prevent them from bumping into objects, and more importantly: people. They are safe and very sustainable: they will run on batteries and consume less energy than most light bulbs.

How Does It Work?

Goods (groceries, parcels, pizzas) are collected at a central hub which will deliver to a 5-kilometre radius. At the hub, up to 4 shipments will be loaded into one of the robots. The end customer, the receiver of the shipment, will choose a location and a time through an app on their smartphone, and the robot will be there to make the delivery. The same app will unlock the robot so you can retrieve the shipment.

A picture says more than a thousand words. And a movie? Well, see for yourself:

Due to their small size and low speeds, and onboard technology, they will safely manoeuvre through towns and cities. There will be no legal or regulatory restrictions (well, there will always be exceptions) to prevent Starship from live testing this system.  They intend to pilot deliveries in London at the start of 2016 and want to run pilots in the US later.

This sounds expensive, right? Wrong! And there are several reasons for that:

Production Cost

The production and servicing cost for these robots are relatively low. The main reason for that is that Starship uses off the shelf parts to assemble their robots. For example, they use some of the same parts used in today’s smartphones and tablets. This makes getting replacement parts relatively easy and cheap.


The end customer, the person that wants the delivery, is the one that decides not only when but also where the shipment needs to be delivered. While taking the 5-kilometre range in mind, this means that these robots will be able to deliver to a ship-to-address but, more importantly, also ship-to-person. I first wrote about the ship-to-person concept earlier this year. The concept is based on goods being delivered regardless of where you are. Read more about it here.


Delivering goods by car can be very ineffective and expensive. Roads, especially in urban areas, can get congested. It’s also relatively expensive for a person with a car (which, to be cost-effective, needs to be filled with lots of shipments) to wait for somebody that is not yet there, or even worse, to have to come back another time in case of a missed appointment. Goods can be shipped in bulk to a Starship hub, where the robots take care of last-mile delivery.

The company states that a Starship delivery will be 5 to 10 times cheaper than a regular delivery. In that case, deliveries will become so cheap that getting into your car and driving to a store to get something will be more expensive, both in gas and time spent. Another interesting thought is the C-to-C deliveries. Do you want to borrow my power drill? No problem, I will send it to you by Starship…

Sure, there is a lot to say against this concept. Will shipments be safe and protected against theft? According to the company, shipments are just like the secure inside of one of their robots as inside a car. If, eventually, more parties venture into this market, will the sidewalks not get too crowded with delivery robots? Will there be legislation created that will forbid this system?

I like to focus more on possibilities instead of impossibilities, and I’m excited about this project. I can’t wait for Starship to launch this in Rotterdam and bring me my first ship-to-person shipment. Or maybe somebody would like to borrow my power drill?

Image source: starship.xyz

starship robot sidewalk

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