An alternative to drones: Company testing self-driving ‘Roomba-like’ delivery robots

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LONDON — Santa knows this better than anyone: Getting those gifts delivered on time isn’t easy. But Santa Claus could soon have some help delivering those presents — with a fleet of small self-driving delivery robots. They’ll soon be tested on the streets of London.

Officials with Starship Technologies, the company developing these robots say these robots put the customer in control — letting the customer decide when they get their package delivered.

“You place your order online as you do right now,” Ahti Heinla, CEO of Starship Technologies said. “But instead of getting the delivery by somebody coming up to your door, and knocking on your door, you would get it by robot.”

The prototype droid can carry about two shopping bags worth of items.

Orders will be delivered to a designated retail hub or outlet before the items are loaded into these robots for the final delivery.

Customers can choose from a selection of precise time slots. For example, you can pick a delivery window of just 10 minutes.

“For someone like me, who leaves Christmas shopping to the last minute, it would certainly be handy,” a potential customer said.

The electric robot is eco-friendly and fitted with navigation and obstacle-avoidance software.

Starship Technologies officials say it will drive autonomously 99% of the time. However, the robots are overseen by human operators who can take control if needed.

For security, the robots have nine internet-connected cameras, a loudspeaker and microphone.

The parcel compartment is locked, and can only be opened using the customer’s smartphone.

Companies like Amazon are pioneering deliveries via drone, but Starship Technologies officials say airborne drones aren’t a popular idea.

“People don’t like when the machines are flying over their backyard — where children are playing, so there’s huge social acceptance problems with the drones that are flying, but not so much with the robots that are land-based and safe, and look cute,” Heinla said.

These robots will be tested in London and some U.S. cities in spring 2016.