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A fleet of autonomous robots has recently appeared on the sidewalks of Washington, D.C. Their mission is to deliver takeout food from restaurants to hungry customers at home. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf took a walk with one to find out how they work.
KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: 6D57 and I are getting ready for a road trip, or at least a sidewalk trip. And on this one I'm riding shotgun. 6D57 is a self-driving delivery robot. It's about knee-high and looks like a medium-sized cooler on six wheels. It's been spending the past few weeks learning the sidewalks of the city so that it can do what it was brought here to do - deliver food to hungry people.
NICK HANDRICK: It's pretty small, pretty cute.
LONSDORF: Also along for the ride is Nick Handrick. He's the D.C. director of operations for Starship Technologies, the company behind these futuristic bots. Starship was founded all the way in Estonia by two of the former co-founders of Skype.
HANDRICK: Let me see. Let's walk over here.
Handrick and I join up with 6D57 as a handler plugs in a series of coordinates for the robot. We're just going for a test drive, but in an actual delivery those coordinates would come from a consumer in the neighborhood using a smartphone app.
HANDRICK: You'd press the button, you'd say, hey, I want this delivered to my house. And then the robot would go to the restaurant, they would load it up with whatever it is you ordered, they'd close it. It locks the lid and then it's on its way.
LONSDORF: On its way traveling about 4 miles per hour anywhere within a two-mile radius. Here in D.C. they're already delivering food, and other U.S. cities are getting ready to welcome them, too.
HANDRICK: So yeah, as you can see now, the robot's making its way.
LONSDORF: 6D57 rolls quietly along about 10 feet in front of us. It's kind of like a remote control car except there's no remote. The secret? Nine cameras located all around the rim are using artificial intelligence technology to monitor the robot's environment.
HANDRICK: So they're seeing things like road crossings. They're seeing things like sidewalk width. They're seeing things like pedestrian density.
LONSDORF: The little bot has lights and a tall bright orange flag so that everyone else can see it, too. But right now visibility is the least of its problems. 6D57 is a sidewalk superstar. Maria Garcia is stopped with her 2-year-old-daughter, Alessandra, in a stroller, pointing to 6D57.
MARIA GARCIA: It's super cool. The only thing I worry about is that - is it going to put people out of jobs?
RUSSELL COOK: Absolutely not.
LONSDORF: That's Russell Cook. He's with Postmates, the online delivery company partnering with Starship Technologies here in Washington. He says the robots are a supplemental way to deliver goods, not a replacement.
COOK: We have people that drive cars. They walk. They bike. And we see robots as another type of vehicle that enables a whole bunch of different things from a delivery perspective.
LONSDORF: Different things like...
COOK: Convenience items from a few blocks away or things that are low basket size, something that's under $10.
LONSDORF: Back with 6D57, we've come to the most daring part of our journey - a crosswalk.
HANDRICK: As you'll see, it's going to - yep, so it stops.
LONSDORF: Cars are passing just a few feet in front of it.
HANDRICK: Obviously it sees the light is a hand signal, so it's not going to across now.
LONSDORF: Does it recognize the actual hand signal?
HANDRICK: So it can recognize stoplights, crossing signs, things like that, yeah.
LONSDORF: 6D57 waits. Handrick looks calm. The robot has done this many, many times before.
Now the walk sign just came on.
HANDRICK: It just turned on. Once it sees it's safe it's going to enable its road crossing mode, essentially, and it's just going to go right across.
LONSDORF: And it's off all on its own, leaving us hurrying to catch up. It turns out 6D57 is more of a solo traveler. Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF GIANT PANDA'S "DO THE ROBOT IN CYBERSPACE")
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