Lunch break at Daimler’s main plant in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim: Workers streaming from all directions make their way to the canteen in Building 128. Those who already had their fill enjoy the sun outdoors over a chat with colleagues. Or they relax on one of the modern seats in the forecourt. It is the usual lunchtime scene here, weather permitting. But today a stranger is moving through the crowd: 6D63 confidently mounts the kerb, politely lets a group of pedestrians pass and then rolls straight for the stairs on the side of the building. He has a “rendezvous” there, with Jasmin Hagg, a marketing intern at Mercedes-Benz Vans.
The student is one of the test customers of 6D63, the delivery robot of Starship Technologies. Just a few minutes ago she received a message on her smartphone to let her know that her order is about to be delivered. She is now on her way to meet the “parcel courier”. Walking down the stairs, Jasmin Hagg spots the six-wheeled vehicle with the cute proportions waiting exactly at the location her smartphone is showing her. She unlocks the vehicle’s cargo space using a smartphone app, removes the package and hurries back to her workplace.
6D63 meanwhile makes his own way back to the “mother ship”, a Sprinter designed to hold a range of packages and up to eight delivery robots. What Mercedes-Benz Vans is trialling here on the company’s own premises in Untertürkheim as part of the “Robotic Delivery Systems” project could soon become reality for parcel delivery services: At the beginning of the shift, a Sprinter drives to its target area. Having arrived at the location, the delivery man no longer delivers the parcels one by one. Instead, eight customers, who have previously agreed to a just-in-time delivery, receive simultaneous deliveries by the robots. This represents an enormous boost in terms of efficiency. In the meantime the delivery man handles the more difficult jobs involving unwieldy packages or already prepares for his next stop.
As part of the „Robotic Delivery Systems“ project, transporters and delivery robots interact with each other intelligently at both the software and hardware level. On board of the Sprinter, the lower deck is the reserved „parking space“ for the robots. The upper deck accommodates the cargo hold for the parcels. An innovative shelving system allows many of the processes on board of the Sprinter to be largely automated, making the delivery man’s job more efficient. What’s more, the Sprinter always knows where all his delivery robots are at any time and where he can collect them again.
The robots themselves navigate streets, public squares and footpaths using GPS and numerous cameras. The vehicle constantly checks its surroundings to ensure that its autonomous locomotion is safe. Thanks to its six wheels and the flexible wheel suspension, 6D63 can easily negotiate even high kerbs.
Starship Technologies has already successful tested its robots in the UK, in Switzerland and in Germany, for example with the parcel delivery company Hermes and the electrical appliance retailer Saturn. The next step is to connect the robots with a transporter as a so-called “mobile hub”. Mercedes-Benz Vans and the Sprinter are the first to rise to this challenge. Interdisciplinary project teams work on innovations in the manner of a start-up, by making use of the opportunities that are opening up in a fully networked and digitised world. This way, the Van is more than just a vehicle – it becomes an integrated solution for the transportation of goods and people.
This is exactly the kind of thinking that drives the Starship founders Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla. The Dane Friis and the Estonian Heinla are not unknowns in the global start-up scene. They were involved in the development of the communications service Skype and the file sharing platform KaZaA. In 2014, the two went on to establish Starship Technologies, their plan being nothing less than revolutionizing last-mile deliveries around the world. “Janus and I did some brainstorming about fundamental changes that could result from the introduction of robots. One of the things we came up with was that robots could be used to make deliveries”, retrospects Athi Heinla.
Thanks to the company´s inventive mind this could become normal in future. “I am certain that the use of robots will result in some significant changes”, says Athi Heinla. “Ships will navigate in automatic mode, trucks will drive autonomously and delivery robots will become part of everyday life on our streets. It is not going to happen overnight, but more quickly than many people think.” Soon Sprinters and robots will deliver parcels not only within enclosed private premises; they will also be making deliveries of normal parcels containing shoes, clothes or books on public roads. The simultaneous delivery via robots out of the Sprinter – a system solution of Mercedes-Benz Vans that is going to make parcel delivery services sit up and take note.
Photos: Matthias Aletsee