A few weeks ago, I received a tip on a new type of land-based delivery drone from a somewhat unlikely source: my youngest daughter. As a sophomore at the University of Arkansas minoring in suppy chain management (that’s my girl!), she told me that the University of Arkansas had been selected to test a new type of delivery robot and that she had seen it in action.
A quick Internet search found an April 2016 article that corroborated her story. Published on talkbusiness.net (“Starship land drone being tested at University of Arkansas for final-mile delivery”), the article states that Starship Technologies, the drone’s designer, and the university’s McMillon Innovation Lab had established a partnership for additional testing purposes. Doug McMillon, CEO of Wal-Mart Stores, funded the lab specifically “to explore future technologies that help to bridge the physical and digital retail world.”
Starship’s opening statements on its website, www.Starship.xyz, included a comparison of its vision for the delivery of goods “to what broadband did for the delivery of content.” Starship calls it “the Broadband of Things.” Before you possibly dismiss it all as nothing more than another good idea with a high-tech catch-phrase (“all hat and no cattle,” as we like to say in Texas), I will mention that Starship includes the same visionaries that brought us Skype.
What if I added that this is more than just a concept, that working prototypes already are making deliveries in 15 cities in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Belgium and Estonia. What if Allan Martinson, Starship’s chief operating officer, said its robots already have shared more than 1,500 miles of public sidewalks with more than 100,000 pedestrians?
In short, this is already deep into what’s proving to be a very successful proof-of-concept phase.
As background, Starship’s delivery drone was born out of the challenge to reduce the carbon footprint associated with today’s mainstream delivery services, with particular focus on the final mile of delivery. “A two-ton SUV driving 5 miles releases two pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere,” according to Martinson. “The drone robot would release just 20 grams making the same trip. The Starship robot runs on batteries and uses less power than the average light bulb.”
Starship envisions local Starship hubs that would store parcels and groceries. Customers would place orders using an app-based solution from their mobile device, which also could monitor the robot’s progress, similar to Uber. Delivery times would run 30 minutes or less.
Land-based drones also would appear to have a couple of immediate advantages over aerial delivery systems. For starters, the current Starship prototype can carry about 20 pounds, roughly the equivalent of two bags of groceries, which immediately expands their potential applications. This represents about three times the payload of current aerial drones. They also should have fewer regulatory hurdles as opposed to their aerial counterparts.
But if there’s one element of Starship’s plan that I would scratch my head over, it’s the concept of using a land-based delivery-bot to replace the delivery vehicles from today’s existing express parcel companies. Aren’t these companies — UPS, DHL and FedEx — already introducing low- or no-emission vehicles into their fleets? Why conceive adding another layer of brick-and-mortar distribution hubs that would only add time, handling risks and cost to the equation? It also would inherently reduce the potential consumer base to those who happen to live within the necessary 30-minute delivery radius (the same restriction Amazon faces with its aerial drone service).
Instead, I see greater value coming from its ability to serve consumers from their existing retailers, or better, as a fully integrated feature of future planned communities. But this will require local retailers to own or lease their own fleet of delivery bots, which brings us to cost, a factor that might make the service prohibitive to some. Perhaps a Starship co-op could manage a fleet for all participating retailers.
Still, I see these issues as nothing more than healthy growing pains. I would even offer that we could see Starship’s “Broadband of Things” evolve together with the emerging “Internet of Things.” For example, imagine your “smart” refrigerator sending a pre-programmed replenishment order to your grocer, say for eggs, bacon and orange juice, which automatically arrive at your door, via robot, just in time for breakfast? I like that.
Jerry Peck is a GTM systems integration and Trade & Customs specialist with Hitachi Consulting. Based in Dallas, he can be contacted at 469-400-5402, or at email@example.com.