Estonian delivery robots invade US to ferry pizzas of the future

By Anne Kauranen, AFP

TALLINN — A knee-high, black-and-white buggy rolls down a snowy pavement in Estonia’s capital Tallinn and, carefully avoiding pedestrians, stops obediently at the red traffic light of a large road junction. The six-wheeled robot, on its way to deliver lunch to a client, knows to cross only when the pedestrian light is green, but, armless, it cannot press the traffic light button. Inventors Starship Technologies have taught their robots to avoid traffic lights with buttons and are now giving them speakers and microphones to help them navigate pedestrian crossings. While not quite as talkative as C-3PO, the quick-witted droid of “Star Wars” movies, Starship robots will be able to communicate with humans. “We’ll have predefined sentences that are used in certain situations. Like ‘hello’ or … ‘could you press the button of the traffic light,’” Mikk Martmaa, the 26-year-old head of Starship’s testing program in Estonia, told AFP. Most passers-by smile as the robot resembling a hi-tech icebox roams the streets of Tallinn’s Mustamae district. “I saw World War II and now I’ve lived to see robots on the streets of Tallinn,” marvels 80-year-old resident Aleksandra Vaskina. A prototype of the robot was first designed for a NASA competition seeking bots able to collect rock samples on Mars or the Moon.

While it did not win, the Tallinn-based engineers behind the model thought it was perfect for food deliveries.

To explore the idea, lead engineer Estonian Ahti Heinla and Denmark’s Janus Friis, co-founders of the online call service Skype, created Starship Technologies in London in 2014. The startup’s bots are being developed and tested in the Baltic state of Estonia, one of the world’s most wired countries and a trailblazer in new technology. On a cold February day, 27-year-old TV producer Liisi Molder does not feel like going out but fancies a 12-euro (US$13) portion of squid and celeriac with herring roe and rocket in shellfish sauce from the busy nearby Umami restaurant. With a few clicks, Molder places her order on an application on her mobile phone and 20 minutes later the robot arrives with her lunch. It had no trouble climbing a paving stone in front of Molder’s block of flats, but unable to press the entry buzzer, it sends a message to her phone. “Knock-knock! Your Wolt delivery is arriving, please come outside and unlock the robot,” reads the message with an access code to open the robot’s container. “I’m sure it’s going to make some services more efficient,” Molder told AFP. The robots’ top speed is around 6 kilometers per hour but they are far less expensive to build and operate than delivery drones now being tested by online retail giant Amazon and others. Once on the market, the final product is expected to cost “as much as a laptop or a really expensive phone. A few thousand euros,” Martmaa said. Starship partnered with Finland-based Wolt, a company handling food deliveries for over 120 Tallinn eateries.

The robots are “a good addition to our fleet. We have bikes, cars and scooters but maybe the robots will be the best option for the short deliveries in the future,” says Matias Nordstrom, Wolt’s interim head in Estonia.