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Delivery robots are now cleared to drive on Washington sidewalks

Tom Banse
NW News Network
A company rep (left) explains the Starship Technologies sidewalk delivery robot to Gov. Jay Inslee's chief of staff David Postman (center) and curious state troopers in Olympia Tuesday.

Wheeled autonomous robots to bring online orders to your door have the green light to enter commercial service in Washington state. Gov. Jay Inslee signed rules of the road into law Tuesday after a robotic delivery vehicle rolled into his office to deliver the bill. The new rules limit the small, battery-powered robots to operating on sidewalks and crosswalks — unless there are no sidewalks. The machines have to yield the right of way to pedestrians and bicycles. Maximum speed cannot exceed 6 mph and a human remote operator must always be available to monitor the robot and take control if necessary.

"Hello, I'm a Starship delivery robot," chirped the six-wheeled machine about the size of a picnic cooler during a demonstration at the foot of the state capitol steps in Olympia. The sensor-packed vehicle slowed to a stop when people got very close.

"Thank you, have a nice day," it blurted from a hidden loudspeaker.

Starship Technologies senior vice president for business development Ryan Tuohy said food delivery to college students could be a good selling point in the Pacific Northwest.

"University campuses are a place where our technology is being accepted and adopted with enthusiasm that has exceeded our expectations," Tuohy said in an interview. "We certainly hope to engage with universities here in Washington state."

No one testified against authorizing autonomous delivery robots when the bill wended its way through the Washington Legislature. The vote count on final passage in the state House was 92-2. The bill passed the state Senate unanimously, 46-0. The new rules for sidewalk delivery robots take effect on July 1, 2019.

Idaho authorized delivery robots on sidewalks in 2017, but no companies have taken advantage of the law there yet. Tuohy said he's interested in expanding to Oregon, too, though robot delivery legislation has not yet been introduced in the Oregon Legislature.

Credit Tom Banse / NW News Network
NW News Network
'The future is here right here right now,' said Gov. Jay Inslee after the Starship robot delivered a bill to him for a ceremonial signature.

During the bill signing ceremony at the state capitol, Inslee said he was pleased Washington was among "the first wave of states" to allow robots to begin delivering packages.

"These devices offer a convenient, fast and low-emissions option for people to have items delivered to their homes and businesses," Inslee said. He gave particular emphasis to "low emissions."

Various wheeled delivery robots demonstrated around the country have been battery-powered. Inslee is making combating climate change the central focus of a campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president.

"These robots are a welcome addition to the exciting new technologies helping us to move people and products safely and efficiently," Inslee added.

State Rep. Shelley Kloba sponsored the bill in the legislature at the request of Starship Technologies.

San Francisco-headquartered Starship Technologies began making robot deliveries of cafeteria orders on the George Mason University campus in Virginia and Northern Arizona University this winter and spring.

"We do packages, groceries, take-out food, anything that will fit in the bin," Starship Technologies' Courtney Edmonds explained during an earlier demonstration at the state capitol in late January. "We hold about 25 pounds of any goods."

Tuesday's outdoor demonstration immediately drew curious onlookers, including a trio of bicycle cops who asked about the security of deliveries. Tuohy explained that the product compartment is locked until it reaches its intended recipient. Sensors and a tracking beacon on the robot can alert its remote operator to sound an alarm if someone tries to steal the machine.

In January, Amazon announced it started a limited field trial of similar-looking delivery robots in an undisclosed neighborhood north of Seattle. This happened before the state's authorizing legislation even got a vote. An Amazon spokesperson declined Tuesday to give any details about how the test is going.

In the blog postannouncing its Scout delivery robot, Amazon said it worked with the Snohomish County Executive’s office to roll out its robot delivery service test.

“We’re starting with six Amazon Scout devices, delivering packages Monday through Friday, during daylight hours,” wrote Amazon vice president Sean Scott. “The devices will autonomously follow their delivery route but will initially be accompanied by an Amazon employee.”

Amazon is currently advertising multiple engineering job openings in the Scout project at its research and development lab in Seattle. No passersby or members of the general public have posted any pictures of the six-wheeled Amazon Scout robots making deliveries since the trial deployment in unincorporated Snohomish County was launched. 

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.