Starship Technologies delivery robot on pavement

San Francisco places restrictions on delivery robots

Image credit: Starship Technologies

The Board of Supervisors of the famously tech-friendly city has introduced a set of strict regulations to control the testing of unmanned delivery robots on its streets.

These robots trundle along pavements to deliver their goods. They are capable of dodging obstacles such as prams and dogs using a range of sensors similar to those employed by driverless cars. The robots may be packed with, for example, a burger from a restaurant, which is in turn delivered to the customer. Once it arrives at its destination, the customer opens the machine with a code to retrieve their burger.

The technology is still in its early stages. Yelp Eat24, for instance, is testing delivery in the city by robots designed by Marble. Currently, delivery robots must be followed by operators, although eventually the intention is for these robots to be entirely autonomous.

They are just one of the many types of robots being gradually introduced to public areas, such as security robots, robot police officers and other assistance robots. The refinement of robotic visions systems is vital to allow these machines to integrate into chaotic, social environments such as shopping centres or hospitals.

The arrival of a small number of delivery robots on the streets in the US and UK has caused anger, with some groups arguing that these machines are congesting pavements – where, arguably, motorised vehicles do not belong – and discouraging people from walking.

The introduction of the San Francisco regulations was led by Supervisor Norman Yee, who initially proposed a complete ban on the “autonomous delivery devices”, warning that the robots could cause collisions with pedestrians. The Board of Supervisors unanimously voted in support of Yee’s regulations. Yee has previously fought to protect public spaces and has criticised Uber and other ride-sharing platforms for overwhelming streets.

From now on, tech companies will need to apply for a permit to trial their robots in the city. The permits still severely limit what the robots can do: they can only be used in specific areas, such as industrial areas with few pedestrians.

The board will allow just nine delivery robots on the pavements at any one time, with each company allowed a maximum of three robots at any time.

The regulations also put a speed limit of 3mph (1.3m/s) on the robots, require the robots to be fitted with headlights, be accompanied by a human operator within 30ft (9.1m), yield to pedestrians, emit a warning alarm and park on private property. They will also need to have an insurance policy and automotive liability before they hit the pavements. The robots will be forbidden from carrying waste or hazardous materials, such as flammable goods.

The states of Idaho, Virginia, Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio have already given permission for tech companies to test unmanned delivery robots on their streets. Given San Francisco’s reputation for embracing new technology, the severe restrictions placed on delivery robots come as a surprise to many.

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