Wheeled drones may be coming to a sidewalk near you

State Department of Transportation wants more safety features.

By Sean Harding

Washington Newspaper Publishers Association

The automation of life has increased significantly over the past decade. Smartphone, drones, artificial intelligence like Alexa and Siri, and delivery services like Postmates, are beginning to converge. Soon, personal delivery devices could bring favorite meals to your doorstep.

Personal delivery devices are small, wheeled robots that deliver food and other small items to customers with a smartphone. They can travel up to 4 mph and deliver up to 20 pounds of cargo to pedestrians within a 3-mile radius. House Bill 1325, if passed, would establish guidelines for the operation of the devices in Washington state. Several other states and the District of Columbia already have established similar regulations.

The bill would allow rolling drones to operate on sidewalks and crosswalks as long as they weigh less than 120 pounds, have a functioning braking system, a marker containing the name and contact information of the operator, at least $100,000 in liability coverage and is actively controlled or monitored by a remote operator.

Personal delivery devices would not be allowed to transport hazardous materials. Bill sponsor Rep. Shelley Kloba (D-Kirkland) said she is open to adding an amendment to prohibit the transportation of alcohol.

“We certainly don’t want unauthorized access to that,” Kloba said at a Transportation Committee hearing Monday.

“This is a very exciting bill,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a science fiction novel. Because we have new and interesting technological ways that we can accomplish tasks that are, you know, pretty mundane.”

Starship Enterprises is one company already in the wheeled robot business. Starship’s U.S. Head of Public Affairs David Catania said his company’s devices have logged more than 150,000 miles without a traffic incident and have encountered more than 15 million people. One insurance claim was filed when a device hit a parked car, which Catania attributed to a “robot ambassador” not paying attention. Robot ambassadors are humans who accompany the devices to do public relations on their first roll outs.

Mike Dornfield, a program manager with the Washington State Department of Transportation, said the department supports the bill but would like to increase safety by requiring an audio warning and reduced speed when the devices approach pedestrians and bicyclists.