The Story Behind Starship, A Sidewalk Robot Delivery Company

We interviewed Ahti Heinla, the CEO of Starship. Starship is creating delivery robots for groceries, food delivery and more. You can hear the interview below. 

In 2003, Ahti Heinla sat in a small office in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, writing software.  The program he was working on was called Skype, which would go on to become the first mass-market Internet calling software, representing some 40% of all international calling traffic, and change the world along the way.

Now, 13 years and a few hundred yards away in downtown Tallinn, Heinla is changing the world once again. Only now, instead of communication software, he's doing it with robots.

Minority Report As Muse

Heinla's newest company is called Starship, which he cofounded two years ago with Skype cofounder Janus Friis. The original idea for Starship came to Heinla and Friis as they were trying to think of ways in which they could change the world and, like so many of today's big thinkers, found inspiration from science fiction movies.

"When you look at science fiction movies like Minority Report and other movies set 10, 20, 30 years from now, nobody thinks 30 years from now there will be people knocking on your door with a delivery," Heinla told me for the NextMarket podcast. "Everybody imagines it's going to be flying cars and we realized that part of that revolution can be done today."

Heinla explained most people assume futuristic advancements such as those we see in movies aren't possible, but that the technology is much closer than most realize.

"People think it can't be done today, that we need some magical technology that doesn't exist today, but that isn't actually true."

Heinla and his team realized that by focusing on making low-cost delivery robots that utilized humans to assist the robots when they encountered problems, the technology could be produced and brought to market today and not a few decades from now. Two years later, they've created their first 30 robots, tested them in urban environments from London to Seattle, and have signed up their first partners.

Moving Faster Than Google

Moving from brainstorm to the brink of a commercial rollout in just two years is an impressive feat, especially compared to other high-profile robotic vehicle efforts such as Google's autonomous car initiative, something the search giant has been working on for the better part of a decade.

How did Starship do it? According to Heinla, they were able to do it because they focused on creating basic sidewalk delivery robots that moved at pedestrian speeds and weren't 100% reliant on computers for every decision. In other words, slow speeds and humans made up the secret sauce that makes Starship's fleet of robots possible today.

Starship robot in London (source: Starship)

"Autonomous cars need to respond correctly to every possible situation that can arise on a road", said Heinla. "With a sidewalk robot, when a robot encounters a situation that is too complicated for the automatic system to handle, the robot can simply stop on the sidewalk and call up the (human) operator to help. This is the beauty of using a robot moving at pedestrian speeds on a sidewalk."

The human operators Heinla is referring to are Starship employees who monitor the movements of the robots remotely as they traverse along the sidewalk. Because the movement of the robot is slow (human speed) and semi-autonomous, it doesn't require continuous monitoring. This allows a human monitor to multitask and operate multiple robots at one time. According to Heinla, their human robot guides will be monitor up to three robots to start, but he expects that number to go up to 100 robots as the robots get more intelligent.

The Cost is in Technology

Even though Starship uses human assistance as a way to get to market faster, Heinla believes the company can still ride a cost curve dictated by Moore's law rather than human wages since their model relies largely on robot delivery, whereas today's delivery business depends on a human showing up at your door.

"The minimum wage isn't decreasing, it's increasing," said Heinla. "At something like $10 per delivery, the majority of citizens (in the future) will not use it (human delivery). It's too expensive."

This long term cost advantage relative to today's all human delivery network doesn't bode well for the status quo. A recent study by McKinsey predicted automation - or robots - will take away a large number of service jobs, in particular those that don't require any special training. Delivery jobs today are somewhat unique in that they usually require a human to traverse through the world, but in the world Heinla is creating, delivery jobs will be done almost entirely with robots.

"With robots," he said, "the cost is in technology, in manufacturing and maintenance. The safest bet you can do is that technology getting cheaper all the time. It's just a question of time before this (delivery) will be one dollar, fifty cents."

Looking forward, Heinla believes they will have a fleet of approximately one thousand robots a year from now, and expects to have Starship robots in the US later this year.

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