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7:43 AM Wed, Nov. 21st

Panel approves use of delivery robots

Bots would obey same pedestrian laws when delivering pizza, mail

At left, David Catania, spokesman for Starship Technologies, explains how an autonomous robot, pictured, could be used to deliver everything from groceries and prescriptions to mail. (Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

At left, David Catania, spokesman for Starship Technologies, explains how an autonomous robot, pictured, could be used to deliver everything from groceries and prescriptions to mail. (Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

PHOENIX — What’s being called a “personal delivery device” doesn’t have the personality of WALL-E, nor the communication skills of that small, waste-collecting robot of Pixar-film fame.

But Arizonans could soon find themselves sharing the sidewalks with small, six-wheeled, automated robots delivering everything from lunch and groceries to the mail.

State lawmakers on Wednesday took the first steps to legalizing the use of personal delivery devices. HB 2422, which received unanimous approval from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, would allow the robots to be operate on sidewalks and in crosswalks.

The bill also would give the robots the same rights and duties as the pedestrians with whom they would share that right of way. That includes a mandate to follow traffic and pedestrian signals.

David Catania, spokesman for Estonia-based Starship Technologies, says personal delivery devices are already a thing in the San Francisco and Washington, D.C. areas, as well as in several countries in Europe.

In some cases, Catania said, customers lease the robots outright, keeping them around for errands as needed. Catania said some customers call on these robots in much in the same way that someone might call for an Uber.

He told lawmakers that the devices won’t be a danger to pedestrians or impair movement on the sidewalk, even if there are several of them running around.

First, he said, they’re no wider than a typical pedestrian. What’s more, he said, they are programmed to avoid confrontations.

“They have a bubble of awareness of about 15 meters, using sonic sensors and cameras,” Catania explained while demonstrating the robot outside the Capitol on Wednesday. “So they’ll actually see the person before, in many cases, the person will see it, especially as many people are constantly on their cell phones.”

And, he said, the shins of pedestrians are in no danger.

“It will get within 18 inches, and then it will stop,” Catania said.

If it confronts something — or someone — that does not move, Catania said the robot is programmed to try to find its way around. And if it finds itself surrounded by pedestrians, he said it slows from its top programmed speed of about 4 miles per hour to match the pace of everyone else.

The legislation, however, allows the robots to go as fast as 10 miles an hour, about three times as fast as the average person normally walks.

Catania said each device effectively “learns” the streets along its routes by being led around for the first time by a human. After that, Catania explained, it should be pretty much automatic.

But Catania said there always is a human who can be “pinged” through the cell phone network in case of troubles, such as hitting something or even coming to an intersection with a lot of traffic. At that point, he explained, a human could take over and help navigate around or through the problem using the onboard cameras.

The devices can go between two and three hours on a single charge. Catania said the focus on deliveries that are in the neighborhood of a mile and a half and probably have an effective range of about two miles.

From an environmental perspective, he said it makes more sense to have small deliveries — the estimated capacity of each is about 20 pounds — made by one of these devices rather than sending out a big gasoline or diesel-powered truck.

And Catania told lawmakers that these robots offer even more creative opportunities.

He said the firm has a partnership with Mercedes that allows eight of these robots to be parked in the bottom of a van, “park it in a neighborhood and deliver 100 packages in the span of a day without the truck ever moving, which is a great benefit, candidly, for traffic congestion and pollution.”

Catania said there are security measures built in, both to protect the robot and its contents.

On the latter, he said the system is set up so that the person expecting a delivery is texted when the robot arrives. Only then will the storage compartment unlock.

As to stealing the device, Catania said that would not be easy. Aside from it weighing 80 pounds, he said there are “redundant GPS systems” to report its location.

“So we’ll be able to find it,” he said.

The legislation requires those who operate the devices to have at least $100,000 of liability insurance to cover injuries or damages. Catania said that, in the company’s history, it has had only one claim.

Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, had a slightly different liability question.

“As someone who’s got a 19-year-old and a 17-year-old that drive, and they run over this thing ... I want to know what it’s going to cost to replace it,” he said.

Catania said the first models — there are about 150 now deployed — cost less than $10,000 to manufacture. But he said once there is a demand for more, the price tag could get down to around the $1,000 range.

The measure needs full House approval before going to the Senate.