Around Town: rise of the robots; flood control | News | Palo Alto Online |


Around Town: rise of the robots; flood control


This week's Around Town looks at what Palo Alto is doing to prepare for autonomous robots, offers an update on the flood-control project around San Francisquito Creek and explores how Stanford University is using fiber to detect earthquakes thousands of miles away.

RISE OF THE ROBOTS ... Humans of Palo Alto, beware! Robots are targeting your streets. According to planning staff, the city has received inquiries from several autonomous-robot operators who want to pilot their devices on city streets. To be fair, these robots aren't exactly replicants or Terminators. Their speeds top out about 4 mph and their main function, to date, is delivering groceries and restaurant takeout. But because the technology is still new and relatively untested, city leaders wants to be sure that any operator of a "personal delivery device" — as these robots are called — first get a permit from the Development Center and commit to a list of conditions, including one that limits their speeds to 3.5 feet per second (or 2.4 mph) when on sidewalks, ramps compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act or crosswalks. The city would issue these permits on a pilot basis, with the program expiring at the end of 2018, according to a proposal that the City Council is expected to approve Monday night. According to the Department of Planning and Community Environment, pilot programs of this sort are already underway in Concord, Foster City, Redwood City, San Carlos, Sunnyvale and Walnut Creek. To date, there haven't been any reported insurrections by the robots or any other major issues. However, there are reports coming out of Redwood City about some issues between robot-pedestrian and robot-motorist interactions, where the robots allegedly "failed to take the right-of-way when appropriate," according to planning staff. In Palo Alto, these devices would be primarily limited to sidewalks, crosswalks and other areas typically used for pedestrians, rather than streets or bike lanes, according to staff. The city would have the power to cancel these permits at any time, without notice.

FLOOD CONTROL ... The San Francisco Joint Powers Authority held the last of three public meetings requesting public input on San Francisquito Creek flood control on Wednesday night. The first meeting on Oct. 4 presented five alternatives related to upper-creek flood management, including the possible removal of the Pope-Chaucer Bridge. Community suggestions expanded the alternatives to 16, which includes widening the creek in some locations, building underground bypass culverts around the bridge and acquiring and building collection ponds upstream on Stanford University property. A bus tour of the creek and its choke points took place on Oct. 14. Wednesday's meeting focused on what community members prefer for implementation. Residents said they wanted an environmentally friendly flood wall where one is needed, recreational opportunities along the creekside during non-flood months, a full analysis of the hydrology and geomorphology for each alternative to reduce sediment buildup and erosion, consideration of the potential "take" of private property and construction impacts, which should be clearly considered and communicated well in advance. The alternatives will all be evaluated in the Draft Environmental Impact Report, which is expected to be released for public comment next year. For additional information, visit

PREPARING FOR THE BIG ONE ... While multiple massive earthquakes in Mexico last month were more than 2,000 miles away from Palo Alto, the temblors were detected from a 3-mile loop of optical fiber installed under Stanford University. The fibers, laid out in a figure eight, are the same ones that deliver high-speed internet and high-definition video to homes. They were installed in September 2016 under a project led by geophysics professor Biondo Biondi and his team that have been using laser interrogators to track their movement. The dense network of a "billion sensors" has picked up 800 events, man-made and natural, in the past year. One of the most significant discoveries came from two small local earthquakes picked up by the fibers that came in at magnitudes of 1.6 and 1.8. "This demonstrates that fiber optic seismic observatory can correctly distinguish between different magnitude quakes," Biondi said in a press release. The professor hopes the observatory can build a case for creating a seismic network for the Bay Area. "Civil engineers could take what they learn about how buildings and bridges respond to small earthquakes from the billion-sensors array and use that information to design buildings that can withstand greater shaking," said Eileen Martin, a graduate student in Biondi's lab.


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2 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2017 at 7:42 am

These robots seem like an exciting development. I'm very excited to live in such a technologically forward community!

1 person likes this
Posted by It's critical
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 28, 2017 at 7:59 am

The Chinese are at least a half a decade ahead of us in this area. I'm thrilled that we'd be America's top of the spear with regard to taking the lead back!

6 people like this
Posted by Have you seen our sidewalks?
a resident of another community
on Oct 28, 2017 at 11:43 am

Look at the ultra-wide open sidewalks of Beijing, and then take a photo of one of those robots in a more representative stretch of narrow, obstacle-strewn sidewalk in Palo Alto. Take a walk around the Ventura neighborhood. Give us sidewalks people can actually take comfortable walks on, and I will be more enthusiastic about the robots.

On the other hand, I would love to see the technology put to good use to create autonomous lead and end vehicles for bicycle "buses" so that people who are nervous about taking their lives into their own hands on some of the main streets can feel comfortable in groups of bikes, especially kids going to school.

7 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 28, 2017 at 1:30 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

One more thing for our distracted drivers to worry about. So add this to the recumbent bikes with no lights or flags, the skateboarders, the regular bikes. the pedestrians, the bollards and giant Botts dots in unexpected places, the flashing traffic signals....

13 people like this
Posted by Louise68
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 28, 2017 at 4:48 pm

Re: robot delivery machines:
Good grief! Those are horrible! They are not humans and thus do not have human values, and will run into people, not all of whom will be able to get out of their way.

And, as far as those robot delivery carts supposedly being allowed to go only 2.4 mph: if there is no room on the sidewalk for both a person in a wheelchair or using a walker, where will the person in the wheelchair or a walker go? And the speed is not what matters; it is the weight of the thing, and therefore the inertia it has that will make it hard to stop. And they will hit and injure people; it is only a matter of time before that happens.

When, not if, but when one of these things hits and injures someone, who is liable for the injured person's medical bills and lost wages, and other expenses? Or do the cities already have their laws written so they and the owners of those machines will bear no liability? I would be very surprised if that were not the case.

We do not need to automate jobs that people can do better. And people certainly can do delivery jobs much better than can machines.

I am ashamed and disgusted that any City Council could even think of allowing these dangerous and unneeded things to operate in their cities, much less actually allow them to operate in their cities.

The only things with wheels that should ever be allowed to be ridden on on sidewalks are wheelchairs and walkers. All other wheeled devices should be walked along by human beings. No exceptions.

No robot delivery carts!

6 people like this
Posted by is it human
a resident of University South
on Oct 29, 2017 at 11:52 pm

To @neighbor
Your posting seems a little fishy. I wonder just who - or what - wrote it. Let's see some ID.


2 people like this
Posted by moi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2017 at 1:14 pm

Louise68 —

It’s not inertia,

It’s momentum.

1 person likes this
Posted by Garden Gnome
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 30, 2017 at 1:25 pm

Regarding the flood control effort:

What's the rush?

The great flood was only 19+years ago.

Maybe we can wait another year or two and issue another report.

5 people like this
Posted by Louise68
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 30, 2017 at 10:47 pm

@ moi:
Thank you! Oops! -- it is momentum, not inertia, once an object is in motion.

Anyone want a relative in a wheelchair to have to win an argument over the right of way on a sidewalk with a heavy robot cart that won't stop?

5 people like this
Posted by Anke
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 31, 2017 at 8:38 am

@Louise68, your post inspires me to consider founding a startup that makes push bars for wheelchairs ;-)

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