Mobile delivery boxes.

  • 21. March 2017
  • Mobility Concept
  • Illustration: Andrea Manzati
  • Text: Walther Wuttke

When a robot delivers your packages: the Estonian company, Starship Technologies, is solving final mile logistics problems in a pilot test in Hamburg.

The future of urban logistics travels autonomously on six wheels along the pavement and, at first glance, looks like a mobile coolbox. Travelling at around 4 km/h (up to 16 km/h are possible), the futuristic vehicles snake past passers-by, cleverly avoiding obstacles and delivering their freight on time to the customer. Using this technology, their creators and the first test customers hope that delivering goods in city centres will become considerably more environmentally friendly.

The transport robots were developed in Estonia by Starship Technologies of which Mercedes-Benz Vans is now a shareholder to the tune of 16.5 million dollars. This year, Mercedes-Benz Vans will use the combination of vans and delivery robots for real in a test run. In doing so, a Sprinter will serve as the mobile “mother ship” from which eight Starship robots will take over transportation for the final mile.

Rock samples from Mars

“Using the van as a mobile hub increases the robots’ radius of operation considerably and also renders the cost-intensive building and operation of decentralised warehouses superfluous,” explains Volker Mornhinweg, Head of Mercedes-Benz Vans. And: “We see the combination of both technologies as an opportunity to provide our transport customers with completely new services and business models whilst at the same time making delivery more convenient for the end consumer because the concept makes punctual delivery of the goods to the customer possible.”

Originally, Starship co-founder Ahti Heinla had galactic plans for the robot that he had developed. It was supposed to collect rock samples on Mars. For that reason Heinla participated in a relevant NASA competition and then, together with partner Janus Friis (both were involved in founding Skype), devoted himself to more earthly transportation problems. In 2014, Starship Technologies was founded, whereby the name was most definitely not chosen by chance. Since last year, the robots have been running around in test runs in countries which include the US, Great Britain, Switzerland and Germany.

Initially the Starship co-founder wanted to send his robot to Mars.

Hamburg is already testing successfully

In Germany, the logistics company, Hermes is testing the mobile delivery boxes in Hamburg. The test run which was originally due to run until the end of December 2016 was extended at the beginning of the year for another three months. “Up to the present day, the robots have been delivering packages, so now they will accept return packages and bring them to the collection points,” a Hermes spokesman explains. The three test robots are being used by collection points in the Ottensen and Grindel districts of Hamburg. From there they serve customers who live within a radius of one to two kilometres. A maximum of three kilometres would be possible.


“The transporters go on tour up to seven times a day and deliver to around 500 test customers.” The logistics company’s pilot test is in reaction to fast-growing e-commerce which is confronting the transportation industry with difficult tasks. “Furthermore, we must consider the environment,” says the Hermes employee. The Starships are emission-free and silent; if, in future, they were to be used also at night, they would relieve logistics in inner cities, too.

' The transporters go on tour up to seven times a day and deliver to around 500 test customers. '

Hermes employee

Under the supervision of a pilot

The Starship robots have indeed been designed for autonomous driving, but at present they are still accompanied by a pilot, active in the background, who can intervene in emergencies. In addition, the transporters are linked to the Starship headquarters in Tallinn which can also react if problems arise. A total of nine cameras and additional 360-degree ultrasound sensors register obstacles and at the same time analyse whether the obstacle is, for example, a dog, a cyclist or a passer-by. Thus equipped, the transporter becomes familiar with its route (learning-by-driving) and, after a certain length of time, can travel for the most part autonomously without the pilot having to intervene.


Prior to the initial operation, says Starship Technologies, “the robot maps the environment before it can travel autonomously.” The transporter uses a mix of GPS and computer vision to measure its position to within one inch (2.5 cm) and, as a result, is considerably more precise than GPS which pinpoints to within 30 metres. If an obstacle is in the way, the transporter stops at a safe distance (with a braking distance of 30 cm). Curbstones up to a height of 20 cm can be easily overcome.

' Up to the present day, the robots have been delivering packages, so now they will accept return packages and bring them to the collection points. '

Hermes employee

Opening the box with an app

During a test in Silicon Valley, the robots travelled autonomously for 90 percent of the time. “However, we are striving for 99 percent.” says Starship Technologies. The pilot that accompanies all operations in Hamburg, has rarely had to intervene. The rechargeable batteries allow for two hours of travel. The transporters can bring freight weighing up to ten kilogrammes to customers who shouldn’t live more than 4.8 kilometres (three miles) away from the delivery firm.

When ordering online, the customer indicates whether the delivery can be made by a Starship robot. A message sent via a smartphone informs the customer that the goods are ready for delivery. The customer can now choose when he or she wishes to take delivery. The storage compartment is opened using the app and the goods can be removed. According to Starship, “the transporters will operate from special centres,” in the future. The company envisages the cost for each transport order being around one euro per delivery.

Inconspicuous suppliers

At present 50 robots have completed around 16,000 kilometres in 56 cities in 16 countries and have met an estimated 1.7 million people without collision – and, according to Starship Technologies, around 70 percent of them didn’t even notice the transporters. The reactions of the other 30 percent were, for the most part, positive. The Starship pilots in Hamburg have had similar experiences. “The behaviour of most passers-by is somewhere between neutral and positive. And many of them apply voluntarily to be test customers once they have received information from our pilots,” is the observation made by those responsible at Hermes in Hamburg. As in other test areas, no one in the Hanseatic city has tried to steal a robot.

Passers-by voluntarily apply to be test customers.

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