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A different kind of drone rolls into Walmart’s backyard

BY Mike Troy

A major experiment is set to begin soon on the campus of the University of Arkansas that could determine how retailers use robots, also known as autonomous terrestrial drones, to make deliveries.

Beginning April 1, London-based Starship Technologies will be turning heads on the rolling hills of the University of Arkansas campus as an important experiment gets underway to gauge human interaction with autonomous land-based vehicles.

Starship’s founders, the folks who created Skype, plan to operate the small, six-wheeled vehicles for the first time in the U.S. in hopes of demonstrating how the vehicle can revolutionize last mile deliveries. The vehicle travels at a maximum speed of four miles per hour and is capable of transporting two to three bags of groceries via sidewalks within a four mile radius for as little as $1, according to the company.

“The key focus at the moment is testing human interaction with the robots and then we will gradually start to do deliveries,” said Starship COO Allan Martinson.

Testing began earlier this year in the United Kingdom where the vehicle, which Starship refers to as a robot, has traveled 1,200 miles on public sidewalks without incident. The vehicle weights about 25 pounds and is capable of transporting about 25 pounds.

“The first reaction of most people was quite a surprise to us. We were expecting some type of reaction but about 80% to 85% of people do not react at all,” Martinson said.

Among the remaining 15% to 20%, the curious looking vehicle tends to elicit a smile or some people will attempt to interact by speaking to it. In the case of the latter, during the pilot phase a Starship representative assigned to monitor the vehicle is positioned nearby and can quickly intervene to answer questions. Those questions typically run along the lines of “what is it?” and “what does it do?” Martinson said.

The test on the campus of the University of Arkansas, about 30 miles south of Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, comes as the university unveils the new McMillon Family Retail Innovation and Technology Lab. The facility near the Sam M. Walton College of Business’ Center for Retailing Excellence is named after Walmart president and CEO Doug McMillion, who along with his wife Shelley, donated $1 million to help fund the lab. Plans call for the facility to study the latest in retail industry technologies, digital and physical store environments and insights into the shopper of the future.

“Customers want a shopping experience that blends seamlessly into their lives, and that requires a constant focus on new technologies and services,” McMillon said when funding for the lab was announced earlier this year.

Starship’s new delivery vehicle certainly fits that bill and has the potential to disrupt the crowd-sourced delivery model almost before it fully gains traction. According to Martinson, executing last mile deliveries by rely on crowd-sourced labor merely shifts costs, whereas an autonomous deliver vehicle truly re-engineers the cost equation be eliminating the expense of human delivery.

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