11 Oct 18

San Francisco Sweeps Robots out of the Streets

On the look-out for robots and drones, I was rather disappointed when I was recently walking around in San Francisco. Where are those little parts of the future that caused so much backlash over the last few months? 

Recently, San Francisco was the city where food delivering robots and electronic scooters were taking over the streets. When walking there today, I do not see any of them, so what happened?


Because of its role as a playground for new industries, being a start-up hub in the vicinity of Silicon Valley, San Francisco was overwhelmed by new toys of the industry. Starting with dockless shared bicycles, over shared scooters, up to food delivering robots.

Starship started experimenting with autonomous robots in 2016, and Marble set up similar experiments in 2017, delivering food and groceries to the customer’s door. Although the purpose was noble - reducing the amount of delivery vehicles on the streets – the Bay Area was not pleased with the autonomous vehicles taking over their pavements. 

Pulled Back

Similarly to what happened recently with e-scooters and dockless bikes, citizens started sending pictures of the robots ‘obstructing’ pavements to local officials. The municipality of San Francisco responded by implementing the most restrictive legislation for robots in the US in December 2017.  

The robots where capped to a total of nine in the entire city, and they were only allowed to operate in less populated industrial areas. What's more, they are not allowed to run on the pavement alone, but they are required to have a human companion. 

As a result, Starship Technologies, which is a venture backed by Mercedes-Benz's parent company Daimler AG, pulled back its robots from the streets of San Francisco, looking for more welcoming cities. 


At the moment the city of San Francisco hasn't yet started delivering permits, and no start-up is therefore permitted to test its robots on the streets of San Francisco yet. Resulting in streets full of homeless, but no driverless deliverers. Nevertheless, Postmates is the first one to apply for a permit for up to three autonomous delivery devices, which is the maximum number of AVs allowed per company. 

In the meantime, Starship started operating in other cities in the Bay Area, such as Palo Alto and San Jose, and some European cities. Moreover, Starship plans to launch large-scale corporate services, in which delivery bots can supply businesses and even universities. 

Drone Delivery

Drones could be another option for autonomous delivery, if not for the equally strict legislation. In the state of California, flying a drone as a commercial pilot means you need to follow the requirements of the FAA’s Part 107 Small UAS Rule (Part 107).

This means you have to get a Remote Pilot Certificate from the FAA, register the drone as a non-modeller, and follow all part 107 rules. 

The latter puts severe limits to the use of drones as a delivery device. Because (1) the weight must be less than 55 pounds, including payload; (2) the drone has to fly within visual line-of-sight, so they will always have to be accompanied; (3) they have to fly during daylight or civil twilight, limiting the time for deliveries; (4) they cannot fly directly over people, excluding many useful delivery route.

As a result of this legislation, the sky in San Francisco has been looking clear, without drones, and the pavements look empty, without delivery bots. 

Authored by: Fien Van den steen