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Ohio is now the fifth U.S. state to permit delivery robots on sidewalks

Starship Technologies helped to pass the Ohio law.


Ohio is now the fifth U.S. state to pass a law permitting the use of delivery robots on sidewalks and in crosswalks statewide.

Republican Governor John Kasich signed off on the state’s budget on Friday, which included a provision that permits the use of unmanned sidewalk delivery robots.

The Ohio statute comes less than a week after Florida became the fourth state in the country to create a similar law. Wisconsin, Idaho and Virginia likewise passed state legislation to allow for the use of delivery robots earlier this year — all with the help of Starship Technologies.

Starship makes a delivery robot designed to ferry food or items ordered online straight to customers’ doorsteps. The Estonian startup, founded by Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, has sent lobbyists to help champion and pass all five state proposals.

The robot delivery company isn’t currently operating in any of the states where it has worked to pass the robot laws. Nor has it shared concrete details on plans to start in any of the five states, though a representative said Starship hopes to begin a pilot in Florida sometime this year.

Ohio’s new robot law allows for the machines to operate on sidewalks and in crosswalks in the state, so long as they weigh less than 90 pounds and travel at speeds of less than 10 miles per hour. The robots can rove unmanned, but a person is required to be in the loop remotely to take over operation in case something goes awry.

All the other state laws have near identical provisions, with weight limits ranging from 50 to 90 pounds.

“We can’t operate on a permanent basis before there is a law,” said Allan Martinson, the COO of Starship, in an email.

But even though Starship sees passing these laws as a natural prerequisite for its business model, that doesn’t mean that the company is in turn clearing a path for its competitors to one day operate their robots, too.

The weight limit baked into all the laws permit robots that weigh less than the robots of at least one of Starship’s competitors. Take Marble, for example, a California-based robot delivery company that makes a machine that outweighs at least four of the state weight limits (Marble wouldn’t specify exactly how much their robot weighs). The company would likely need to pass special provisions to be able to one day operate its robot in those states.

Starship says that in many cases the company targeted states based on prior relationships it had with local lawmakers, particularly those involved in sponsoring bills on testing self-driving car technologies, like Senator Jeff Brandes in Florida, said Martinson.

Still, Starship has yet to pass legislation in a state with a major urban population center, like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, nor has the company run a program in the United States yet where its robots travel without a person present with the machine.

After all, it’s hard to imagine one of these robots would last very long on its own in a bigger city without getting stolen or vandalized on its way to deliver a pizza.

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