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Q&A: Ahti Heinla, CEO, Starship Technologies

Written by Scott Thompson
06/11/2015

Retail Systems chats to Skype co-founder Ahti Heinla, who has launched a new company, Starship Technologies, which will see delivery robots hitting the streets next year

RS: What drove you to launch Starship Technologies?
AH: Starship Technologies was born when technological ability discovered a problem. Three years ago I decided to go into robotics as a hobby and created a 10-strong team that competed in the NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge, a contest with a $1.5 million prize fund to build a robot that could find and retrieve samples on an alien planet without the help of communications, GPS etc. In summer 2014, my fellow Skype co-founder Janus Friis and I were brainstorming about new startup ideas and realised that robotics could be an answer to the largest problem in delivery, the last mile. In retrospect, it seems such an obvious idea, but sounded initially quite crazy. The company was created virtually a few days later and employed over 10 people by the end of the first month.

RS: The likes of Amazon and Google are betting on delivery drones, but you guys have gone down a different route. Why opt for delivery robots over drones?
AH: There are three reasons. First, it's pure economics. Lifting things from the ground is always more difficult than rolling them on the wheels. Starship's per-delivery economics is considerably better than drone deliveries. Our energy cost is practically non-existent, and all other costs are also very low. Second, it's about safety and regulations. A 20-pound bag attached to a drone will cause a lot of damage, possibly fatalities, if falling from the sky. Our robot simply stops at malfunction. It is inherently safe and does not face the same regulatory hurdles. Third, it's about public perception. Filling the sky with buzzing drones, especially over residential areas, is not something most people want. Our robots are non-intrusive, quiet and friendly.

RS: What would you say to those who look at the slow speed and limited range and are put off?
AH: We are the solution for the last one to five mile segment of deliveries. Instead of driving a heavy van with a driver door-to-door, and burning CO2 and cash in process, we allow delivery firms to offload the parcels at our hubs and let us do the last mile delivery – at a time that is convenient for the end customer. This allows the delivery runs with vans and final delivery to customers to be done totally asynchronously, creating massive efficiency gains for delivery firms and convenience for consumers. We also create a local delivery option for local businesses - something they could not afford today.

Even at pedestrian speeds, we can deliver goods to customers in 15 minutes, with five-minute precision. That is not possible with current delivery options. The slow speed was an important decision – we want the robot to blend in seamlessly with pedestrians, and most importantly, to be safe. The limited range is also intended, the robot is designed to do one delivery at a time – this way it can better serve the convenience of consumers. It delivers within 30 minutes slots – meaning the consumer gets their delivery at a time that suits them.

RS: Who exactly are you targeting with these robots? Is it companies looking to compete with Amazon Prime?
AH: The robot is intended for use by retailers, and/or logistics/distribution firms. We’re currently in talks with several highly interested companies but their names will be revealed over time. We believe the robot delivery solution also opens up the opportunity for new forms of retail business models, such as point-to-point delivery of goods, or rental and return items.

RS: You make a compelling case re. environmental benefits, but how much will it cost companies to run and maintain a fleet of robots?

AH: Starship will run and maintain the robots on behalf of the customers. The prices will depend on volumes, of course, but the target is to bring the cost below $1-1.5 per delivery. This is 10-15 X cheaper than current on-demand delivery options.

Further info on Starship Technologies at: www.retail-systems.com/rs/Starship_Technologies_Robots.php


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