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Robot delivery drones are just around the corner

Wednesday, December 13, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

City-sanctioned land drones could be hitting a sidewalk near you by February 2018.

That was the report Austin Transportation Department Chief of Staff Karla Taylor gave to the Urban Transportation Commission on Tuesday evening.

Her briefing was an update on the development of a pilot program that would allow private companies to deploy electric-powered personal delivery robots on sidewalks, crosswalks and other pedestrian ways. City Council authorized the pilot through a resolution the members passed in August.

“(Council members) see it as a disruptive or emerging technology that’s coming whether or not we want to pilot it,” Taylor told the UTC. “The thought is to pilot it and assess how it operates in our city right of way so that ultimately if and when it comes to making a recommendation for a regulation or incentives, we’ll be doing so based on knowledge rather than conjecture.”

According to Taylor, other cities, including San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have similar programs that allow delivery robots to operate in defined areas. The devices weigh up to 300 pounds and move no faster than 10 miles per hour. They could be used in Austin to deliver groceries, meals or pharmaceuticals.

The city’s pilot would likely pair the robots with human companions to monitor their functionality and explain to a potentially bewildered public what the devices are.

Taylor said that representatives from the emerging industry have indicated to the city that the robots work best in densely populated areas. While that makes downtown a likely testing ground, Taylor said ATD will encourage program participants to look to the east.

“We’re going to ask them to consider serving other areas, those that may be higher density but traditionally underserved,” she said.

Commissioner Eric Rangel questioned the need for the city’s involvement in the program.

“You don’t have to have government oversight on this,” he told Taylor. “You can just say, ‘Hey, we’ll let one company or two companies have at it on the city sidewalks and just see what happens’ instead of having this sort of regulation on it.”

Taylor countered that ATD is carrying out the will of Council.

“But also it’s in the city’s best interest to monitor the safety and efficiency of the sidewalks, so we do want to collaborate with the private sector as they move forward,” she added. “It’s a learning opportunity for us as well as the private sector, and we’ve heard from a lot of them that want to work with cities to develop pilots. They’re learning as well.”

Chair D’Ann Johnson took issue with the human operators that will accompany the robots. When Taylor pointed out that the robot firms themselves typically prefer to pair their devices with a monitor, Johnson dug in.

“That kind of defeats the purpose of having the robot do the delivery. Otherwise you might as well have the person drop it off,” she said.

“Ultimately, I think that their goal and intention is to eliminate human operators,” Taylor replied.

ATD will issue an open request for interest later this month to solicit potential partners for the pilot program. The current timeline envisions the first pilot to launch in February. ATD staff will report back to Council with the results of the program in August 2019.

Photo by Mart Rootamm (Mardus), CC BY-SA 4.0, Link.

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