Explained: Delivery robots get the green light in Wisconsin

Explained: Delivery robots get the green light in Wisconsin

Starship Technologies’ delivery robots are largely autonomous, although they have human operators to intervene if necessary.

Robotic coolers that zip along sidewalks to deliver food and other goods are now officially recognized under Wisconsin law.

Senate Bill 148, signed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker Thursday morning, adds “personal delivery devices” as a class of vehicle subject to regulation in the state. The bill also outlines rules for those robots’ speed and weight, and dictates where precisely they can go (sidewalks and crosswalks only).

An Estonian company called Starship Technologies, launched by the creators of the teleconferencing tool Skype, is one of the forces that has been pushing for the legislation. Starship been testing its small, black-and-white robots throughout Europe and in some cities in the U.S over the past year. The two-feet-tall, six-wheeled rovers are essentially self-driving cars on a tiny scale: They come with a sophisticated array of sensors for navigating along sidewalks, zipping around obstacles and crossing streets.

The bill is the third of its kind in the country: Starship has already worked with legislators in Idaho and Virginia on legislation that passed in those states. For SB 148, Starship has confirmed that it worked with authors Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, and Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, R-New Berlin, on the measure.

“The delivery robot industry is gaining momentum,” wrote Allan Martinson, the company’s CEO, in a press release from the company.

Kapenga said that as the owner of a technology company — he’s the president of the Milwaukee software firm Integrated Time Systems — he enjoys working on measures like SB 148.

“It’s fun for me to see things like this, where in government, we can make sure we’re walking side by side with technology,” said Kapenga.

He said he hopes the bill will signal that Wisconsin’s friendliness to emerging technologies.
Kuglitsch, who is also an advocate for driverless cars in the state Legislature, wrote in an email to the Cap Times that he, too, hopes the measure will bring business to the state.

“I hope personal delivery device companies take this opportunity to partner with Wisconsin businesses to grow local delivery options and speed for e-commerce in the state,” said Kuglitsch.

Safety and the job-loss potential are two concerns that Starship and others have been navigating as they try to promote the robotic delivery technology. Starship says that so far robots have yet to cause a collision or pedestrian injury in the extensive testing logged. It also asserts that its technology won’t replace workers in the delivery business, and that its robots would fill in gaps in service.

The law means that any maker of such an electronic device could operate in the state, so long as it’s less than 80 pounds and stays under a 10 mph limit. As a blogger with ReCode points out, at least one of Starship’s competitors, Marble, would not meet those standards.