New pilot program could bring robotic deliveries

Imagine special robots dropping off items on your doorstep. A pilot program could roll out robotic deliveries in Austin as early as next year. But it raises a lot of questions.

Imagine special robots dropping off items on your doorstep. It's something that could become a reality for Austinites as a new pilot program set to roll out as early as next year.

But it raises a lot of questions.

They're called personal delivery devices (PDD), or land drones, it’s what the Austin Transportation Department is helping to oversee in a new project. ATD Chief of Staff Karla Taylor said the robotic deliveries have already taken off in major cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

The bots are designed to carry and drop off your groceries, fast food and even your medications from the pharmacy.

"The pilot will be limited in scale, probably a one-and-half-mile radius in certain areas. The company will tell us where they want to test first, and also it's important to know that we're monitoring this because it's important to know that there's no adversity impacts to pedestrians and bicyclists so we're working with the companies to ensure those things happen,” Taylor said.

She says retail and highly dense areas are likely a starting point for the program.  

According to Starship Technologies, part of the D.C. launch, the business loads the robot with the item, a destination is set through a special app, and they're off -- all controlled by someone off-site.

For the model used, the bot had nine cameras and several sensors, as well as a GPS. In terms of how fast it travels, it had speeds of about four miles per hour (in the mock trial). However, speed can vary depending on environment, only going as fast as needed on sidewalks. The company says the drone can’t climb stairs, instead it sends a message that it has arrived at your door.

For Austin Transportation, one major area they want to focus on is safety on the sidewalks.

“They're supposed to yield to pedestrians, bicyclists -- we want to make sure that happens. Every city is different. I think there's going to be different dynamics, different neighborhoods, so I think it's important for us to pilot it as well to learn from it,” Taylor added. “If there is any future legislation to come out even at state-wide level, we'd like to do so on first-hand knowledge.”

There are still more questions to follow as the program continues to develop, such as security management. But for now, the city is looking to collaborate with potential partners and anticipates a launch as early as February.

“Austin is a high-tech city, so we want to provide that laboratory to test out new technologies, we want to work with private sector providers, gain data, share data, and learn how do we proceed best for our community.” Taylor said.

© 2018 KVUE-TV


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