When they first see a little robot moving down the sidewalks of Washington, people ask the same question: "Can it bring me beer?"
Eventually, yes. Or a few bags of groceries. Or a half-dozen burgers and fries from Shake Shack. In fact, the next time you place an order on Postmates, there's a chance that a robot and his friendly handler might appear at your door. It's as if they're visitors from the future who traveled back in time to complete an important mission: bringing you a burrito.
They're the product of Starship Technologies, a robotics company from Estonia that has been testing its robot couriers here in the District for the past few weeks. About the size of an Igloo cooler with wheels, they have the design aesthetic of an iPhone, the rugged durability of an all-terrain vehicle and the lovable charm - entirely projected upon this inanimate machine by humans - of the "Star Wars" droid BB-8.
"It does have that kind of cute appeal to it," said Nick Handrick, 31, head of operations for Starship's D.C. office. The company's designers wanted to "create a device that people are actually comfortable with, that they're comfortable having around their children, around their vehicles, their personal property. So part of the design decision is to make it something that people find endearing."
They haven't named the robot yet - "we just call it the Starship Delivery Robot" - but they're seeking suggestions for "something with a little personality," he said.
The robots are piloted autonomously, guided by nine cameras and numerous sensors. They travel only on sidewalks, with the permission of the D.C. Council, and can reach a top speed of 4 miles per hour. They can detect obstacles from as far as 30 feet away, and they are constantly monitoring - and recording, and mapping - their terrain. (For those worried about privacy: Starship says the robots' cameras blur faces in the captured data.)
"The robot can operate through just about anything," said Handrick. "If you had something in the way - a stick, a curb - it's able to climb curbs."
So if, say, someone didn't pick up after a dog on the sidewalk, the robot would be able to roll around the mess. Or if a sidewalk is under construction, it could take a different route. And for now, it is always accompanied by a human minder, whose job is to answer questions, collect observations and data, and help the robot if it gets into a bind - which, so far, it hasn't.
For deliveries, the robots are also secure. They can be opened and closed only by the restaurant and the customer, who can unlock a robot's hatch through a mobile phone code. They are tamper proof, and they can tell when someone is trying to steal them, which hasn't happened yet either.
"Were someone to try to take it or mess with it, it would use its sensors to tell its operator that it's being messed with," said Handrick. "It has gyroscopes, so if it gets tilted or tipped or anything, then we actually do have a mic and speaker through it so an operator would be able to speak through the robot."
Which could be really fun for the operators - imagine the possibilities! "UNHAND ME, HUMAN, BEFORE I DETONATE." "Stop, Dave. I am afraid." That is not what the operators would say, of course. "Sometimes [we] speak through it just for fun, but we never do that to the public," said Handrick.
People have tried to trip the robots up, literally. "They want to see if it's going to stop when they put their foot in front of it. They think if it runs into their foot, it could run into anything," said Handrick. But it doesn't. "The robot will essentially stop on a dime."
For now, Starship has partnered with Postmates, and is getting restaurants used to handing off meals to a robot. Five robots are in the pilot program so far, and the selection of orders has been random, so you're not guaranteed a robot delivery (though you have a better chance at one if you live within a two-mile radius of Starship's lower 16th Street NW headquarters and the restaurant you're ordering from). The robots can take the delivery only to your outside door - not all the way up to your unit if you are in an apartment or office building - so people who are mobility-impaired can opt out.
Eventually, Handrick says, Starship hopes they can also deliver groceries and goods, such as dry cleaning, and to be able to travel without a human minder within the year. Once Starship has more robots in its fleet, the company predicts, the cost of delivery could come down to as low as a dollar. (Right now, the cost is set by Postmates, and ranges from $3.99 to $20, depending on distance). So far, Starship is using the robots in Estonia, England, Germany, Switzerland and the United States, where Washington is the second city to see them (after Redwood City, California).
For now, as they glide down the sidewalk with a mechanical purr, they're causing some double takes.
"I thought it was a baby carriage," said a man who identified himself only as Mohamed, when he encountered the robot zipping around the corner at 15th and O streets as Handrick and another Starship employee followed. "I've never seen that before in my life."
The robot rolled over a "Free Gaza" graffitied patch of sidewalk. It stopped politely at driveways and for bikers. It slowed down when approaching bus stops and congested sidewalks. And when it encountered another delivery robot moving in the other direction on the sidewalk, they each kept to the right and passed each other silently.
As the robot crossed the street in front of Le Diplomate on 14th Street NW, a driver waiting at a red light got out of his Mercedes and stepped in front of a waiting bus to film it on his smartphone. A pit bull tied to a railing nearby gave it a skeptical look and twitched. One man applauded when it stopped at a crosswalk.
"Is there any food in that yet?" asked a woman who identified herself only as Susan. An off-duty dog walker, it was not her first time seeing the robot. Her dogs "kind of look at it and keep on going, but if it rolled toward them, I wonder what they would do," she said.
Shannon Boyd stopped in front of Da Hong Pao, phone camera out, then followed the robot down the sidewalk. "We were talking about it yesterday in my office," said Boyd, 28, who works at the Studio Theatre. "We were going to order food just so we could get it delivered by a robot."
She turned to Handrick. "I heard in another state one was vandalized. In Philadelphia."
"The Hitchbot? I think they had one that was trying to cross the country. It wasn't one of ours."
Boyd laughed. "It went all over the world, but it couldn't survive Philadelphia."
Most Washingtonians who encountered the robot on a recent afternoon were unfazed, not giving it more than a glance. Come on, Washington! There are robots on your sidewalks. Aren't you impressed?
"As people get used to these and it becomes an everyday part of life, it will be as normal as a bike or a car," said Handrick.
And truly, Starship's yet-to-be-named delivery robot seems to operate better than a human on foot. It rolled slowly but proficiently over all manner of obstacles: gnarled tree roots, curbs, loose sidewalk bricks. The same could not be said of the reporter following it, who was paying attention to the robot instead of where she was going, and at one point, tripped on a piece of uneven pavement that the robot rolled over, unperturbed.
- - -