8 Delivery Robot Startups for Last Mile Delivery
A couple of years ago, we told you about two companies that had developed what could be best described as Star Wars droid couriers. It seemed pretty niche at the time. Now we learn that there are more than a half-dozen startups offering delivery robot services, which seems to be part of a larger trend of retail automation involving artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. McKinsey and Company predicted that about 80 percent of “last-mile delivery” will be carried out by ground robots or delivery drones. We’ve already started allowing robots to take care of grandpa, so why not bringing us a sandwich from Panera?
A conversation about automation inevitably leads to talk about how many people AI and robots will put into the unemployment line. About 500,000 people work as delivery drivers and couriers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with a median salary of about $30,000. On the flip side, humans are still needed to monitor these delivery robots. In fact, a new job category informally called “robot wrangler” has recently emerged. Perhaps this is something we should add to our jobs of the future list, though it sounds like most positions don’t pay much better than delivering pizzas in the first place. And those jobs are being taken by these delivery robots:
For All the Marbles
One of the latest startups to join the battle of the sidewalk delivery robots is a San Francisco startup called Marble, which pulled in a $10 million Series A just a few days ago. Investors include China’s tech giant Tencent, as well as some individuals involved with a self-driving startup called Cruise Automation that General Motors recently acquired for $1 billion. Founded in 2015, the company has been working on developing fully autonomous delivery robots that can navigate the chaos of a city sidewalk, where pedestrians, pets, and peddlers of bicycles engage in an unchoreographed dance that can defy logic. The machines, about the size of an office copier, use cameras, LiDAR, and high-resolution 3D city maps to navigate.
While the company first tested its delivery robots in collaboration with food delivery service Eat24, Marble’s robots have swappable cargo bays to transport various types of goods, from food to prescription medicine.
Super-sized Delivery Robot
In the category of super-sized delivery robots is Nuro in Silicon Valley. The startup raised $92 million in January for what appears to be a self-driving car about the size of a golf cart. Investors include Banyan Capital, a Chinese venture firm, and one of the top VC firms in Greylock Partners. You’ll find all the usual bells and whistles standard on self-driving cars: LiDAR, cameras, and radar. That’s not surprising considering that the founders are a couple of former Google self-driving car engineers. Forbes reported that Nuro is currently building a half-dozen electric vehicles to carry everything from groceries and food orders to flowers and packages. The delivery robots will stick to city streets rather than highways—and with no humans in the vehicles—the cost to build the hardware should be significantly less than a regular self-driving car.
Update 11/09/2020: Nuro has raised $500 million in Series C funding at a post-money valuation of $5 billion to scale its service in Houston and implement R2 into commercial service. This brings the company’s total funding to $1.5 billion to date.
To Boldly Deliver
Founded in 2014, London-based Starship Technologies (with engineering facilities in Estonia) is probably one of the better-known delivery robot companies out there. The startup has raised $17.4 million since we first featured them. Founded by the same guys that brought you Skype, Starship has built delivery robots that look more like ice coolers on wheels than a futuristic robot on the Enterprise.
Customers order stuff through an app, which allows them to track the little bot as it traverses the urban jungle of cities like San Jose. The six-wheeled droids have a range of two miles and can make deliveries within 30 minutes. Like Domino’s Pizza but different. (Incidentally, Domino’s has teamed with Ford to deliver pizzas using self-driving cars.)
Update 01/27/2021: Starship Technologies has raised $17 million to roll out more delivery bots. This brings the company’s total funding to $99.2 million to date.
Long Haul Last Mile
Another Silicon Valley startup, Robby Technologies came out of the Y Combinator program when it was founded in 2016 by a couple of MIT experts in robotics and computer vision. The startup has picked up about $2.1 million in Seed funding with a model that looks an awful lot like grocery cart but with more NASCAR-type advertising:
Its new Robby 2 model has a range of more than 20 miles on a single charge. The delivery robot is reportedly at work in eight California cities.
The Swiss Twist on Delivery Robots
A Swiss startup called TeleRetail, founded in 2013, has reportedly raised about $2 million, including grants from the European Space Agency. The company employs a sort of subscription-based logistics model for its tri-wheeled delivery robot, which predictably uses computer vision, GPS and high-tech sensors to navigate autonomously, including hardware from companies like Nvidia. TeleRetail’s CEO described the robot to TechCrunch as a sort of Mars rover that delivers laundry or picks up groceries.
In addition to delivering Ricola cough drops and Swiss Miss hot chocolate to picturesque villages in the Swiss countryside, TeleRetail is testing its robots in the United States, including Washington, D.C.
The Hummer of Delivery Robots
Another Bay Area startup with a delivery robot, Dispatch has raised $2 million in Seed money from investors like Andreessen Horowitz. Dispatch has produced a Hummer version of the delivery robot model called Carry, which has four compartments and can haul about 100 pounds at a time. It also has cool compartment doors that slide up like something you would expect from the future.
Like many of the delivery robots featured here, Carry uses sophisticated algorithms and computer vision to navigate its environment.
Unsupervised.AI has gone with a totally different design for its delivery robot, a four-legged contraption that looks like it was built by Boston Dynamics for a dystopian episode of Black Mirror. Co-founded by a former data scientist at Lyft, the dog-sized delivery robots are designed for curbside delivery. The idea is for a network of Lyft-like drivers to drop several of the robots, dubbed Aida, at any given street corner, where they scuttle off to deliver a painful death to your fast food or fine China.
There are actually wheels attached to the end of each leg, but the design reportedly allows the robot to climb over obstacles while carrying up to 30 pounds of stuff. While nominally based in Silicon Valley, the early-stage startup, which has raised an undisclosed amount of Seed funding, actually operates in Europe.
Robotic Room Service
Getting off the sidewalks and streets is Savioke, yet another Silicon Valley startup that uses robots to deliver coffee and other sundry items in settings like hotels or manufacturing facilities. Founded in 2013, the company has raised $17 million from about a dozen investors including Intel. Its flagship delivery robot, Relay, looks like one of the murderous Dalek robots from Dr. Who that screeched “exterminate” while rolling around aimlessly. Instead of delivering death, Relay delivers towels and your Starbucks order for a $2 surcharge. The Verge reported that the robots, with about 70 working in hotels around the world, will soon get upgrades in order to detect WiFi dead zones, report trash in hallways and even mingle with guests by telling jokes. The best part? No tip required.
News that Amazon has applied for its own patent to develop robot delivery tech, what it refers to as an autonomous ground vehicle, will surely spur competition among those already in the space. It’s hard to say who will win this battle of the bots at this point, as everyone appears ready to jump on the autonomous bandwagon. On the other hand, there is quite a bit of resistance to the coming robot revolution. Surprisingly, San Francisco has emerged as HQ of the rebellion, banning delivery robots from most of the city sidewalks. Strict rules around delivery drones have similarly restricted that industry from taking off. That’s part of the problem with investing in emerging technologies: Until they’re more widely accepted, the chance for a payoff is slim. And then it’s too late.
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