Virginia becomes the first state to allow delivery robots to use sidewalks


Virginians may have to get used to sharing their sidewalks with robots.

The state passed a bill Wednesday to allow delivery drones to operate on sidewalks and crosswalks anywhere in the state. The new legislation, which will go into effect on July 1, was drafted by lawmakers Ron Villanueva and Bill DeSteph in collaboration with a delivery bot company started by two Skype founders, Starship Technologies.

The new law states that the drones won’t be allowed to travel faster than 10 mph and cannot weigh more than 50 pounds, including whatever is on board. They will drive autonomously, but Starship Technologies will monitor them remotely from a command center. Municipalities can also impose their own restrictions on what the bots can do, or refuse to have them at all.

In an interview with Recode, Villanueva said there wasn’t much resistance from legislators. “It was more like intrigue and curiosity about the technology, what the application would be, how it would benefit the citizens,” he said.

While other companies have focused on delivering things such as burritos from the sky, the pedestrian bots in Virginia will take the slower approach to drone delivery. The average speed of the bots is 4 mph, and they can move only within a three-mile radius to deliver up to 20 pounds of goods. Time of arrival should be anywhere between five and 30 minutes.

Anyone ordering a delivery from the bots will be able to track its progress with a smartphone, which also must be used to open the locked compartment upon delivery. “Our vision revolves around three zeroes – zero cost, zero waiting time and zero environmental impact,” Starship Technologies Chief Executive Ahti Heinla said in a press release. “We want to do to local deliveries what Skype did to telecommunications.”

According to reports, Inc. has supported the legislation, sending letters to the governor of Virginia. Currently Amazon’s Prime Now delivery service guarantees delivery within an hour, but it uses humans as drivers. Starship Technologies aims to replace human couriers with robotic ones, taking goods from locally placed warehouses. That isn’t to say the two companies won’t work together someday.

Starship has previously tested its delivery bots in Washington, D.C., and Redwood City, California, as well as 40 cities in Europe. It’s reported that Idaho and Florida could be next to a pass similar law to that passed in Virginia.

Image: Starship Technologies