Robots are no longer the high-tech tools reserved for university labs, e-commerce giants, and bustling Silicon Valley startups. The local grocer now also has access.
Turtle, The one-year-old Silicon Valley startup, known for its remote-controlled electric scooters, has adopted its technology and adapted it for delivery vans. The company recently partnered with online grocery platform Self Point to provide convenience stores and specialty brand stores with electric carts that use remote teleoperators to deliver goods to local consumers.
The companies launched the product offering in Los Angeles with three customers. Each customer, including Kosher Express, has two to three carts that can make deliveries up to a three-mile radius from the store. Unlike the network models used by some autonomous road delivery companies, grocery stores lease the vans and are responsible for storing, loading, and packing goods that their customers have ordered.
Self Point Tortoise's initial start is small. But it has what it takes to expand well beyond Los Angeles. More importantly for Tortoise is the affirmation of the company's larger vision of making remote repositioning a multi-application, horizontal enterprise.
Tortoise initially equipped electric scooters with cameras, electronics and firmware with which teleoperators in remote locations can drive the micromobility devices to a driver or bring them back to the right parking lot. Now it has used the same hardware and software and created its own van from it.
Tortoise co-founder and president Dmitry Shevelenko said the company's remote repositioning kit can be used on security and cleaning bots, as well as electric wheelchairs and other accessible devices. He's even answered queries from farmers interested in using scooters for remote monitoring to monitor crops.
"From a practical point of view, we are not trying not to be everywhere overnight, but there are really no technological limitations for us," Shevelenko said in a recent interview.
The rise of COVID-19 and its impact on consumer behavior prompted Tortoise to switch to vans as the second act.
"We quickly realized that we were living in a one-time shift in consumer behavior where everything is now online and people expect it to be delivered the same day," said Shevelenko. Tortoise was able to switch from the first renders in May to the delivery truck launch in the fourth quarter as it was able to use its hardware, software, and workforce for other purposes.
The company remains optimistic about its first application in micromobility. Earlier this year, Tortoise, GoX, and the technology incubator's Curiosity Labs launched a six-month pilot in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, allowing drivers to greet a scooter using an app. The scooters are equipped with Tortoise technology. As soon as the drivers greet the scooter, a Tortoise employee hundreds of kilometers away remotely controls the scooter for the user. After the drivers complete the rides, the scooters drive back to a secure parking lot. From here, GoX employees load and disinfect the scooters and then mark them with a sticker indicating that they have been properly cleaned.
While the partnership with Self Point is Tortoise's next big project, Shevelenko quickly realized that the company is only focusing on a piece of the on-demand delivery cake.
"Slow speeds and hot food don't work that well," he said. Startups like Kiwibot and Starship have smaller robots focused on this market, Shevelenko added. Tortoise vans are specially designed to handle large quantities of food, alcohol and other goods.
"We saw a big opening in the grocery store," he said, adding that relying on remote operators and their kit is an affordable combination that can be used today as automated technology advances. "We're doing for last mile delivery what globalized call centers did for customer support."