Autonomous Delivery Robots Rolled Out in Virginia

By D. Rockwell Bower

Effective July 1, 2017, Virginia will become the first state to allow robots to deliver packages via ground delivery, utilizing sidewalks and crosswalks. 

As safety and regulatory concerns have prolonged the introduction of drone delivery services from Amazon and Google, ground-delivery robotics companies have worked with legislators in several states to demonstrate the safety and efficiency of ground-based autonomous delivery robots. The new legislation allows robots to roam autonomously, so long as they are supervised by the delivery company from a remote monitoring system and do not exceed 10 miles per hour or 50 pounds. Virginia’s new law may be amended by local municipalities to regulate how robots will operate locally, including speed limits and potentially prohibiting robots entirely. 

Ron Villanueva and Bill DeSteph, the two Virginia lawmakers who sponsored the bill, worked with Starship Technologies to draft the legislation. Starship Technologies is a European company with its research and development based in Estonia and its business headquarters located in London. It has been testing its robots around the United States, including routes for food delivery with Postmates in Washington, D.C., and DoorDash in Redwood City, California. Starship claims its robots have already logged over 30,000 miles and “encountered” over 3 million people, without any incidents. 

Starship will likely be the first company to benefit from the new law, but other ground delivery services are working to launch their own autonomous delivery robots and submitted letters to the governor of Virginia in support of the law. Other states are also considering introducing ground-delivery robots, and both Idaho and Florida already have legislation pending. 

Proponents of the law point to immediate benefits to local municipalities’ transportation issues, including decreased road congestion in areas that do not have room or the budget for new roads. Robotic deliveries are also expected to decrease shipping costs for consumers and vehicle pollution.

However, potential privacy concerns involving ground robots remain unanswered. Starship’s robots and others being tested are the size of coolers and are equipped with nine cameras and sonic sensors that surround the entire device, as well as two-way speakers to enable operators to speak with nearby people. This technology, although convenient, presents inherent concerns related to visual and audio recordings of nearby people or places – including government surveillance.

Also unanswered is what private information of the recipient is stored or available on the robot, as well as what information is retained by the robot delivery service. This is especially critical with Starship, who is expected to roll out the first ground-delivery robots in Virginia and is working to do so in other states as well. With offices in both Estonia and London, Starship is currently subject to the General Data Protection Regulation proposed by the European Commission and will later be subject to unknown privacy obligations after the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. 

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