Sydney start-up Marathon Targets is applying military technology to the everyday task of pizza home delivery.
When Domino’s Australia recently released footage of an autonomous robotic vehicle delivering pizza, some considered the exercise little more than a PR stunt. Not so, according to Dr Alex Brooks, the man behind the four-wheeled wonder. He’s adamant that Domino’s Robotic Unit (DRU) will one day provide an efficient way of despatching piping hot pizzas all around our cities.
“We’ve been doing live trials for a year now and we’re currently negotiating what the future relationship with Domino’s Australia will look like,” says Brooks, co-founder of Sydney-based robotics company Marathon Targets.
The company’s autonomous creation (no joystick required) has been designed to trundle along footpaths at speeds nudging 20kmh, avoiding collisions thanks to a laser-fired sensory system. When DRU arrives at its destination, a security code unlocks the heated storage compartment to reveal the pizza within.
"There’s still a lot of technical work needed to get it to handle the environment more robustly."
“There’s still a lot of technical work needed to get it to handle the environment more robustly,” says Brooks, adding that the regulatory hurdles are “challenging in a legal area with limited framework”.
According to Domino’s, DRU will become a permanent addition to its transport fleet in about two years – after the mountains of red tape have been sorted out.
For the Marathon Targets team, DRU is a rather radical departure from its original stock-in-trade – robotic soldiers.
“We were approached by Australia’s special forces with the concept of developing autonomous target robots for realistic military training experience,” explains Brooks, who co-founded the business with Dr Alex Makarenko and Dr Tobias Kaupp in 2007, when they were all post-graduate students at the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics.
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The military target robots are intended to look, move and behave like human beings, before trainee snipers riddle them with holes. In fact, the technology inside DRU was originally designed to dodge battlefield bullets. Following the success of its Australian Army contract, Marathon Targets’ fortunes were further boosted in 2010 with a US$50 million order from the US Marine Corps. The business now employs about 35 staff in Australia, the US and the UAE.
With the concept of automated delivery gaining worldwide traction, the company is brainstorming ideas that could use the same technology. “Fortuitously, Domino’s approached us, but we’re now looking at other industries,” says Brooks.
In a similar space, Estonian-based Starship Technologies (co-founded by one of Skype’s creators) has developed a parcel-delivering robot, further demonstrating that it’s only a matter of time before we’re sharing footpaths and airspace with a variety of robots and drones.
In the meantime, pizzas are on Marathon Targets’ menu. This raises the question: is DRU at risk of being mugged for free pizza and cheap thrills on a Saturday night?
Brooks says that the robot carries surveillance and security technology, and hopefully this will be enough to keep the pizza pirates at arm’s length. After all, he adds, “there are cars on the street worth more than this robot and people don’t destroy them!”