Delivery robots hit D.C. streets to reduce truck traffic

Updated: March 2, 2017 at 1:18 p.m.

Some D.C. residents expecting the pizza guy are now finding a robot on their front steps.

Delivery service Postmates and a U.K. robotics firm are testing a program with robots bringing packages and food deliveries to residents’ doors through December. Although the delivery robots are not allowed to deliver in certain parts of the city, including in Foggy Bottom, experts said sending out the small robots could improve delivery service in congested traffic areas in the District.

Five robots hit the streets in February in the 20009 zip code, which includes U Street and Adams Morgan, according to The Washington Examiner. They are not allowed in D.C.’s business district, which includes Foggy Bottom, the White House, the Capitol building and areas on the National Mall because of national security restrictions.

D.C. was the first city in the U.S. to legalize these robots, experts said.

Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh, who introduced the bill legalizing the robots – with a robot delivering the bill to the Council – proposed another bill to extend the legalization of robots through 2017. The bill is under review in the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, which Cheh chairs.

Kelly Whittier, Cheh’s communication director, said the Council has not gotten pushback from major shipping companies.

“If the technology is safe and compatible with the District than it’s our role to ensure that those safety measures are accounted for and that they are legally able to operate on our roadways,” she said.

The robots are used to deliver a package from a hub to the store or customer and do not completely eliminate delivery trucks, Whittier said.

“Hopefully if the technology is there they will be helpful in reducing the amount of trucks that will be going through our residential neighborhoods,” she said.

The District is one of the most congested cities in the world, with a new study from INRIX Data company ranking the city at No. 15 for congestion on a list of 1,064 metropolitan cities.

The D.C. Council approved the pilot program with Postmates and Starship Technologies last year and will pass Cheh’s bill if they decide to expand the program, Whittier said.

The bill will pass if the robots are efficient and cost effective enough, Whittier said.

The robots will only travel on sidewalks except when crossing roads, run solely on environmentally friendly fuel sources and are accompanied by a trained handler during the pilot program. The robots have already logged more than 10,000 hours in cities across Europe and the U.S., Henry Harris-Burland, the head of communications for Starship Technologies, said.

He added that the project is still in development and there is not an exact date for when the service will be completely available.

“It’s very surprising to see how well integrated the robot moves into the daily life and how it was actually ignored by the majority on the sidewalk when it passes by,” Harris-Burland said.

Harris-Burland said although the robots are not yet 99 percent autonomous, Starship Technologies hopes they eventually will be. The robots also will only operate in residential areas to improve the current inefficient delivery system in neighborhoods where many deliveries go out at once.

The robots each have nine cameras that cover all angles, a two-way audio system that allows for Starship to communicate with people outside the robot and a loud alarm that sounds if someone picks up the robot, Harris-Burland said.

Andy Perry, the operations manager for Postmates, said the robots will provide more jobs because they will allow employees that would otherwise make deliveries to move up in the organization.

“I know that the popular perspective of when you hear about programs like this is that it’s going to take away jobs, but we don’t have enough people to begin with,” Perry said.

Perry said that each robot is accompanied by a human handler while it is making the delivery during the testing stage, but the delivery prices should eventually decrease.

“It will be dramatically cheaper because you won’t have to pay a courier for this job,” Perry said.

This post was updated to reflect the following corrections:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Harris-Burland said there were weaknesses in the robots. He said there were challenges to using the robots. He also did not say distance or lack of autonomy were challenges. We regret these errors.

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