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​Startup bets its wheeled robots, not airborne drones, will deliver your groceries

Two Skype co-founders form a new company, Starship Technologies, to try to lower the cost of package delivery with six-wheeled robots.

​Starship Technologies will test its six-wheeled delivery robot in Greenwich, UK, in 2016.
Starship Technologies will test its six-wheeled delivery robot in Greenwich, England, in 2016.
Starship Technologies

DUBLIN -- Worried about malfunctioning Amazon or Google delivery drones dropping out of the sky? Startup Starship Technologies has a more down-to-earth alternative: wheeled delivery robots that travel on city sidewalks.

The Tallinn, Estonia-based company, which unveiled its products this week in conjunction with the Web Summit conference here, hopes its compact vehicles will help make delivery of groceries and medium-sized packages "almost free." That may sound ambitious, but it's similar to what proved successful for Skype, the online voice and video chat service that Starship co-founder and Chief Executive Ahti Heinla helped found.

"We want to do to local deliveries what Skype did to telecommunications." Heinla said in a statement. His co-founder at Starship, Janus Friis, was also a Skype co-founder.

If successful, Starship's battery-powered robots could replace some delivery vans and trucks and accelerate the e-commerce industry's current push toward instant-gratification services. If you don't have to wait days for packages, the thinking goes, you'll be more likely to buy products on the spur of the moment with an app or website -- and less likely to go to a brick-and-mortar store.

Starship Technologies' delivery robot can carry about 20 pounds worth of cargo and only opens when authorized by the recipient.

Starship Technologies

Starship hopes retailers and shipping specialists will want its robots, but the first to be seen in the real world will be in an early 2016 test program in partnership with Greenwich in the UK, Heinla told CNET. Rain-soaked Brits will be delighted to hear the robots are waterproof and can handle all weather.

Skype, which Microsoft acquired for $8.5 billion in 2011, did indeed make long-distance and international communications dramatically cheaper for those with broadband connections. But terrestrial delivery robots face real-world obstacles that software doesn't. Delivery robots will need to be reliable, swift and theft-proof enough to match alternative delivery methods.

Starship's robots will be able to deliver two grocery bags' worth of cargo -- 20 pounds -- within five to 30 minutes at one-tenth to one-fifteenth the price of conventional delivery, Heinla said. They have a range of four miles and travel at 4mph, or about the same as a fast pedestrian. Customers can track the delivery vehicle online and, when it arrives, unlock it with an app to ensure only the proper recipient gets the goods.

They'll navigate on their own, but human overseers will help ensure safety, Starship said.

Airborne drones offer a more direct route to people's homes, with no difficulties handling traffic signals and crowded sidewalks. Though they've been used in Singapore for delivering mail, ice cream and meals, they pose complicated questions for regulators trying to keep the airspace safe.

In the US, airborne-drone delivery could become a reality only after Federal Aviation Administration develops rules. Wal-Mart has joined Amazon and Google in showing interest in drone delivery. In October, the FAA granted Workhorse Group clearance to test its HorseFly delivery drones, sent from a compartment atop its delivery trucks, in a five-square-mile part of Wilmington, Ohio.