At the same time this week that millions of monster-nabbing people found themselves obsessed with the craze that is Pokémon Go, four college students were in Kansas City on Thursday touting a technology that its makers hope will be equally transformative:
“A lot of people say they look like coolers on wheels,” said Kayla Bruskas, 23, a business student at the University of Arkansas.
With three engineering classmates, she has been touring the Midwest this summer for the Estonia-based company Starship Technologies, showcasing delivery robots that look like, well, remote-controlled white coolers on wheels.
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Starship was begun in 2014 by Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, two Estonian co-founders of the video chat site Skype. On Thursday, two of the bots could be seen scooting along the walkways in Theis Park, part of a demonstration south of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
“Hey, what do your robots do?” Lori Arri, a gardener from Leawood, shouted as the bots rolled by the Ewing and Muriel Kauffman Memorial Garden.
“They’re delivery bots,” Bruskas shouted back.
“Delivering what?” Arri asked.
It was a fair question.
The students, as part of a summer program, were testing what they call “social acceptance” of the bots, meaning how people felt and reacted to them. The company maintains that the electric bots can be used for “last mile” delivery of small items such as packages or even groceries. Google and other companies have been looking at flying drones for similar delivery.
The bots can be controlled remotely using a joystick but are designed to be autonomous, using their own GPS maps to guide themselves down sidewalks and even over curbs.
The bots cannot yet climb stairs. Nor do they drop off packages, but they are designed, using a downloaded app, to alert customers that the package will be at their door within about 15 minutes.
Arri asked about vandalism, or theft. At 40 pounds each, the bots could easily be picked up and tossed in a trunk. But the lids are only unlocked using a code given to a customer. The devices have multiple cameras and can be located using GPS.
Arkansas mechanical engineering student Matt Sheppard, 21, said multiple people have asked if the bots can be used to carry beer. Yes. Bruskas said a few bots are already in use in London and Estonia delivering, well, pizzas.
Low to the ground, the bots may also be vulnerable to traffic, smashed in a crosswalk by a driver who is distracted, perhaps by playing Pokémon Go.