In Germany’s northern city of Hamburg, people are getting a taste of the future as parcel delivery robots tour the streets in what is Germany’s first experiment with mailmen on wheels.
The robot announces itself to selected test clients via a smartphone notification. Customers of German parcel delivery company Hermes, a subsidiary of Otto Group and the country’s second-largest parcel delivery group after Deutsche Post DHL, can select to have their packages transported from a collection point to their homes via the sleek black and white robot.
Once a customer opts for the automated mailman, the smartphone screen allows the client to trace the six-wheeled box-shaped device's approach on a map, until a message pops up: “Your Starship robot is waiting outside for you.”
Starship, an Estonian startup founded in the summer of 2014, is one of the world’s leading companies to explore deliveries by robot, both for parcels and food. The company, co-founded and headed by Ahti Heinla, a developer who was also involved in the founding of Skype and file sharing service KaZaA, is running pilot projects in Estonia, the UK, Switzerland, Germany and in the United States. It claims its robots have encountered 2.8 million people to date and roamed the streets of 58 cities.
In Hamburg, Germany’s first city to witness robot deliveries and home to Hermes’ headquarters, 3 robots are in the field since August 2016 thanks to the support of the city council which approved the trial. The robots only deliver packages that customers wanted to be shipped to collection points, so-called parcel shops, which can be local grocery stores or drycleaners. From there, some customers are given the option to select delivery on the last home stretch via robot.
The robots do not replace conventional delivery routes or even mailmen. Hermes Germany, operator of Hamburg pilot project
“The robots thus do not replace conventional delivery routes or even mailmen,” Hermes is quick to point out in a press release from August last year, well aware of concerns over robots potentially stealing regular jobs.
Given the cut-throat delivery industry's price pressure with its vast net of sub-contractors and low salaries, the robot is likely to increase future competition, however. A prototype robot costs a low four-digit amount and Starship prices each delivery run at €1, or about $1.04.
Technology firms shaking up traditional industries, such as ride-hailing app Uber and home-rental service Airbnb, are eyed skeptically in Germany. A court in Frankfurt last year upheld a ban on UberPop, the company’s low-cost service, while the city of Berlin practically outlawed short-term home rental, dealing a blow to Airbnb.
But for now, Starship’s delivery robots still require continuous human monitoring anyways. The robots’ autonomy and navigation system are still at a trial stage and Hamburg’s city council mandates that the delivery vehicles have to be accompanied by a human on their routes. The robots are also connected to an operator, based in Starship’s Estonian headquarters, who monitors the robot's ride on the sidewalk and is able to intervene at any point, the startup says. Before crossing bike lanes or roads, the robot has to ask permission from its human overlord.
The robot cannot climb stairs and human assistance is also required to open gates and clear other obstacles out of the way, calling into question how soon the robots could become truly autonomous. For now, the delivery machines are still operating in “mapping mode,” exploring the streets and peculiarities of their neighborhoods by employing GPS and image recognition and cameras and parking sensors to avoid collisions.
“We’re obviously not setting up a ready-made product,” Frank Rausch, Chief Exective of Hermes Germany, said in a statement last year. “The pilot test is much more about gathering important data and experience. After all, this is a unique project across Germany.”
Starship is also running real-life tests with robots in Washington D.C., California and London, where the robots deliver meals ordered via Just Eat and Pronto. The Estonian startup also signed a partnership with the Swiss Post and in September last year launched a pilot with Mercedes-Benz to develop “Robovan,” a project during which Mercedes vans act as motherships for 8 delivery robots which are then sent out to complete customer deliveries in designated neighborhoods.
While the so-called Internet of things is still in the early stages of development, security fears over hacking attacks on network-connected devices, such as self-driving cars, dominate the discussion. In the physical world at least, Starship and Hermes are able to eliminate such concerns – the robot only opens its sleek black hood to the parcel’s rightful owner after activation of a personalized, encrypted code. Any violent tempering with the robot itself activates an alarm and alerts the device’s human operators in far-away Estonia.
Stefan Schmitt is a deputy editor at Die Zeit, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global. Tina Bellon is an editor for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: reda[email protected] and [email protected]