You'd be forgiven for thinking Starship is the name of a sci-fi film, because this start-up company is bringing the future of retailing onto today's pavements. 

The Starship robot is capable of carrying the equivalent of two grocery bags, and completing local deliveries within five and 30 minutes from the retail outlet. The company claims it costs 10-15 times less than current last-mile delivery alternatives. The robots drive autonomously 99% of the time and provide an environmentally option for the last-mile fulfilment challenge.

Co-founder and CEO Ahti Heinla, tells Essential Retail about his robotics fulfilment service.

What is your background?

I have software development background. I have been programming computers since I was 10 years old. I have been involved in many internet startups, most notably Skype, where I was chief technical architect since the founding of Skype.

Where did the idea for Starship come from?

I had a brainstorm with my co-founder Janus Friis, where we discussed the big things that robotics could change in the world. Last mile delivery struck us as the industry where full automation has not been done, although it should be possible. We realised that it is possible to do with today's technology, no need to wait for 10 years. Then we just set out to do it.

Are there trials currently taking place? Where?

We are testing Starship robots in several cities in Europe currently, with US testing to start soon. We are not doing regular commercial deliveries yet, though – we are just driving our robots on sidewalks and observing how the robot behaves and how people react to it.

Which is more important: the Startship platform or the robot which catches people's attention?

Both are important. The robot is just a tool to make the delivery platform possible.

Can the platform be developed beyond robotics? How so?

Yes, in a delivery platform, all modes of transport could be combined, not just robots.

Do you have a nickname for the robot?

Not yet, but if you have a suggestion, we are happy to listen!

Where do you see the company in 5-10 years time?

I see Starship having many happy customers who are enjoying very economical and convenient last mile delivery.

How do you plan to encourage the robots to fit into human life on the streets (ie. avoiding people tripping over them or maliciously damaging them?)?

They already blend in with pedestrians remarkably well. The robots have driven hundreds of miles, and so far we have had only positive encounters with people. Some people have attempted to hug the robot or feed bananas to the robot - so they are more friendly to robots than to other pedestrians!

Obviously, the ways how the robot interacts with pedestrians is very important, and we are testing this carefully and constantly improving the robot.

What types of retailers would be interested in using your platform? SMEs or large retailers?

Actually, many different retailers have expressed interest, from small bakeries to some of the world's largest retailers. Clearly, lowering the cost of delivery and making it more convenient for consumers are worthy goals in all sectors. The vast majority of items delivered today in the world do fit into a Starship robot, and all retailers are interested in saving money. For residential area consumers, they are obviously also interested in saving money, and additionally, they like the idea that the robot could deliver their parcels when convenient for the consumer (often in the evening), not when a courier happens to be in their area (usually during workday).

What is the main challenge for the fulfilment industry at the moment?

Last mile delivery actually is the biggest challenge today. It is the largest undisrupted industry in the world.

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Starship