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Is NH ready for the delivery robot revolution?

  • Public domain photoA quad-copter style drone.

Citizens Count
Published: 6/21/2021 4:24:05 PM

New Hampshire legislators have a habit of looking to the future with bills to legalize flying cars or autonomous vehicles. HB 116 is another such bill that looks toward the not-to-distant future; it regulates how delivery robots would be allowed to operate in New Hampshire.

Cutting edge delivery technology

New Hampshire wouldn’t be the first state to invite delivery robots to our sidewalks. Just last week in Austin, Texas, Southside Flying Pizza began employing a small fleet of Refraction AI’s REV-1 delivery robots. These robots operate autonomously and bring fresh pizza to customers around the city. In this case, the machines weigh 150 pounds and are described as being “about the same size as a person on a bike.” They can go up to 15 miles per hour and operate in bike lanes rather than on sidewalks.

Machines like this wouldn’t just be good for delivering pizza, however. They could conceivably deliver medicine, groceries, and any number of products to customers. Interest in these remote delivery robots peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some cities in China used them to deliver groceries and sanitize streets during lockdowns.

What’s in the bill?

HB 116 — which legislators have decided to work on over the summer before deciding whether it should pass — regulates “mobile carriers” and “personal delivery devices.” Mobile carriers are defined as small (less than 80 pounds) machines operated on sidewalks and crosswalks intended to transport property. These would be designed to be actively monitored by the property owner and stay nearby the operator. Personal delivery devices, on the other hand, would be capable of operating without the active control or monitoring of another person.

According to the bill, these delivery robots would have to obey the same rules as pedestrians on the sidewalk or crosswalk, except that the robot would have to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians. The machines would also have to have marks identifying its owner, complete with contact information. When operating on sidewalks, the machines would have to be actively monitored or controlled by operators. Mobile carriers wouldn’t be allowed to transport humans or animals, and owners of these devices would have to maintain insurance coverage.

More tweaks needed

At the bill hearing for HB 116 in February, its sponsor Rep. Steven Smith asked that the Transportation Committee retain the bill so they could work on it further over the summer. He explained that the model for his legislation came from a similar bill in Rhode Island, but since submitting the bill he has become aware that tweaks may be necessary. For example, due to the weight and speed requirements, HB 116 as it stands wouldn’t allow for the robots used in Texas to be used in New Hampshire. Rep. Smith asked that the committee hang onto the bill and hammer out these details over the summer with help from industry experts like FedEx, Dean Kamen, and more.

Pros, cons of autonomous delivery

Rep. Smith proposed this bill in hopes of making New Hampshire a hub for technological development. In his view, companies developing new technology don’t want oppressive regulations, but they also don’t want a “wild west” regulatory environment. Instead, they want states to layout simple ground rules so these companies can confidently make investments here.

While no one spoke against the bill at the hearing, there are a few concerns with bills like these. New technology is bound to have some kinks to work out as it is developed. Some worry that there could be unforeseen consequences to having robots buzzing around New Hampshire sidewalks, possibly impacting pedestrians or slowing traffic. These problems may be more likely in older, tighter neighborhoods without bike lanes – which describes most of New Hampshire. Automated delivery robots could also conceivably take jobs away from human beings.

Make your voice heard

If you have an opinion on this bill, now is a great time to reach out to the members of the Transportation Committee gencourt.state.nh.us/house/committees/committeedetails.aspx?id=18) who will be working on this bill over the summer.

Citizens Count is a nonprofit serving the New Hampshire community by providing objective information about issues, elected officials, bills, elections, and candidates. These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.



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