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Robotic courier trial in Germany, Switzerland

Stefan Bienkowski
September 6, 2016

Swiss Post, Hermes and Media Markt have partnered with Starship Technologies to trial the almost fully autonomous robots. The devices are designed for door-to-door deliveries within 30 minutes over a 5-km radius.

Starship Technologies Roboter mit ehemaligem Skype Gründer Ahti Heinla
Image: picture-alliance/empics/N. Ansel

Self-driving robots are making their way to the pavements of continental Europe this month, with companies in Switzerland and Germany trialing devices that deliver parcels all by themselves.

In a partnership between Swiss Post, Hermes and Media Markt with Starship Technologies, the cities of Bern, Köniz and Biberist in Switzerland and Hamburg and Düsseldorf in Germany will see the quirky six-wheeled robots used to deliver either dummy parcels or mail in the coming weeks.

Following test runs and a phase to map the city, Hermes hopes to have three robots operating autonomously in Hamburg by the end of September to take requests from registered test customers. The three month trial will see robots buzzing between specific parcel shops in Hamburg, with a similar trial phase expected in Düsseldorf between Media Markt chains over the same period.

"We like the idea that - one day - we could send out a zero-emission robot all around the clock to deliver a parcel on request from a shop or a micro depot to the customer’s home," Ingo Bertram, manager of corporate communications at Hermes, told DW. "As several German cities expect more issues with traffic, emissions, etc., robot delivery could be a part of a future parcel delivery concept - especially in urban areas."

Hermes stresses that the robots will never be able to match what a human driver can deliver in one day and will therefore never replace the local mailman.

But with the ability to deliver in 30 minutes within a five-kilometer (three-mile) radius, the battery-powered robots do offer a personal option for costumers on the go. And that’s certainly intrigued the Hamburg-based company.

Better than drones - for now

Starship Technologies, founded in Estonia by PayPal co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, have already tested the R2D2 look-a-likes in over 42 cities across 12 countries.

Although the trial robots will have human minders to answer questions from the public, there hasn’t been a single incident in over 8000 kilometers of test runs in bustling cities like London or Washington DC.

And people seem to love them. "They found it both cute and interesting" said Bertram when asked about the unveiling of the Hermes-branded couriers in August. "People were keen on the robot and hungry for information. They were also asking us if they could participate in the nearby test."

Hermes hopes that the friendly, child-like demeanor of the Starship bots will prove through these trials that the future of autonomous deliveries is on six wheels - and not hanging from a drone in the sky, as rivals Amazon are banking on.

"We believe that a ground-based, friendly designed Starship robot currently gains a lot more positive public acceptance than a drone," Bertram said, "which is often linked to negative connotations like insecurity, missing controllability and - last but not least - that weapon thing.

Bertram added that while robot seems to be the better option today, future sky drone models could also become an option for delivering Hermes parcels.

The London-based Starship Technologies boasts that their creation can mount curbs of up to 20 centimeters and make its way through snow of a similar height. And with nine cameras, two-way audio, an alarm and a lock on the lid that can only be opened by a specific pin number sent to the customer, they're confident that you'll never lose your mail or takeaway.

"To date we haven't had any ‘kidnap' attempts or attacks," Starship's marketing and communication manager, Henry Harris-Burland, told The Engineer. "We've found that if you try and put your leg through the top, all that happens is that your leg gets trapped, and you end up walking around with a massive robot on your leg. It's quite embarrassing."

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