Army of food delivery robots

MILTON KEYNES: A pedestrian walks her dog alongside a line of parked autonomous robots called Starship before delivering groceries to a nearby Co-op supermarket in Milton Keynes, England. – AFP

MILTON KEYNES: It is famous for its roundabouts and concrete statues of cows. But the English town of Milton Keynes now has another claim to fame – an army of grocery delivery robots. The six-wheeled automated vehicles, launched three years ago, barely have a glance as they ply the residential streets some 80 kilometers north of London.

The number rose to 200 in Milton Keynes and nearby Northampton, which introduced the service in 2020, with plans for up to 500 to be in action in five more locations across the country. According to robot operators, the stocky white machines took on their full meaning when Britain shut down last year as the coronavirus hit the country. “Everyone was in dire need of contactless delivery during the pandemic,” said Andrew Curtis, UK operations manager at Starship Technologies. The American company, which has quadrupled its deliveries to the United Kingdom, now makes 1,000 deliveries per day.

“Demand has not declined,” Curtis said, adding that as home stay restrictions were lifted, users became more willing to try the technology. The company has signed a new deal with its longtime partner, the Co-op group supermarket chain, to deliver 300 new robots by the end of the year and triple deliveries. Outside one of the Milton Keynes retailer’s shops, which was the first to use the delivery machines in 2018, a dozen robots are ready and waiting. With their antennae topped with an orange flag for easy visibility, they almost look like a line of empty bumper cars.

Starship Troopers
An employee exits the store and places the last order inside one of the robots – a small bag containing raspberries, yogurt and a bouquet of flowers. With its lid locked, the droid immediately rushes to the sidewalk. He turns and moves forward to cross the road before stopping, backing sharply to let a car pass. Equipped with cameras, sensors and an audible alarm if necessary, the robots – created for the first time in 2014 by the two founders of Skype – are 99% autonomous. But if they get stuck, an operator can take control.

Once launched, the robot traverses the maze of paths that wind between the red brick houses of Milton Keynes. When the way is clear, it can reach speeds of up to six kilometers per hour – little more than a reasonable walking pace. Deliveries reach customers in less than an hour. The cooperative said using the robots is both environmentally friendly and convenient, with 70% of Starship customers driving without driving to a store or receiving a delivery from a gasoline vehicle.

As part of the delivery system, the robots remain the property of Starship and orders are placed through an application they have developed. The company manages 1,000 robots, mainly in Great Britain and the United States but also in Estonia, Germany and Denmark. The tech company is not alone in the race for delivery robots. In the United States for example, where it operates mainly on university campuses, it is positioned with start-ups and logistics giants like Amazon and FedEx.

A boon “
As their numbers increase, wheeled delivery drones have drawn criticism from unions, who fear taking jobs away from people. The debate has made its way into US town halls, which are responsible for deciding the limits of delivery routes and the rules for sharing the sidewalk. “Fortunately, we haven’t had any accidents so far,” Curtis said, adding that in the UK Starship has obtained local authority clearance for each of its operating sites. The robot carrying raspberries, yogurts and flowers continues on its way, hesitating in front of a gaping hole, the result of the continuous maintenance of the road.

Road workers seem bewildered as they lay planks to fill the gap. When the delivery robot finally reaches its destination, Sheila Rose, 71, leaves her home and unlocks it with her smartphone, to collect her groceries and flowers. “If I can use it, anyone can do it,” she said, leaning on a cane. “Due to my poor health, I have a hard time getting to stores,” she said, calling the robots a “godsend.” Delivery drones have become so essential to the septuagenarian that some weeks she uses them every day. “I have great-grandchildren. And they love it, “she added. – AFP

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