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UK town makes shopping easier with delivery robots

A lot of concrete cow sculptures and roundabouts dot the city. Milton Keynes, the English town, has made another claim to fame — a robotic army that delivers groceries. These six-wheeled automated vehicles ply the town’s residential streets, some 80 km north of London, barely getting a second glance. Since Milton Keynes and Northampton introduced the service in 2020, the numbers have grown to 200, with plans to expand to 500 in five more places across the country. The white robots came into their own last year when Britain was locked down by the Coronavirus outbreak.

Andrew Curtis, head of UK operations at Starship Technologies, said everyone needed contactless delivery during the pandemic. Now, the US company delivers 1,000 items a day in the U.K, quadrupling its deliveries there. Despite the low demand, Curtis said the technology became more popular when stay-at-home restrictions were lifted. By the end of the year, the company hopes to produce 300 new robots for the Co-op’s chain of supermarkets, as well as triple deliveries. A dozen robots are waiting outside one of the retailer’s Milton Keynes stores, which was the first to use the machines in 2018. With an orange flag atop their antenna, they resemble a queue of empty bumper cars.

Starship troops

Among the robots, an employee places a small bag containing raspberries, yogurt, and a bouquet of flowers – the latest order. Droid dashes onto the pavement immediately after locking its lid. It moves forward to cross the road before suddenly reversing to let a car pass. Featuring built-in cameras, sensors, and loud alarms if needed, the robots were created by Skype’s co-founders in 2014 and are 99 percent autonomous. However, if they get stuck, an operator can intervene.

The robot navigates Milton Keynes’ maze of footpaths once it has taken off. Depending on the terrain, it can reach speeds as high as six kilometers per hour -nearly four miles per hour at a reasonable walking pace. Using the robots are environmental friendly and convenient, as 70 percent of the Co-op’s customers will save on driving to stores or having deliveries from fuel-powered vehicles. Starship owns the robots under the delivery system and an application they developed enables customers to place orders.

The company manages 1,000 robots, primarily in the United States and Great Britain, as well as in Germany and Denmark. This is not the company’s only delivery robot. For example, it is competing with other start-ups and logistics giants to gain a foothold on university campuses in the United States, where it primarily operates.

God’s gift

A growing number of wheeled delivery drones has drawn criticism from unions, who fear they may take people’s jobs.  A debate has taken place at US town halls, where rules about delivery journeys and sharing the road will be decided. Curtis said in the UK Starship has obtained permission from local authorities for each of its operating locations, adding that so far there have been no accidents.

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The robot carrying raspberries, yogurt, and flowers continues its journey, hesitating when it encounters a gaping hole, caused by ongoing road maintenance. The roadworkers look unimpressed as they put down planks to bridge the gap. At last, the delivery robot reaches Sheila Rose’s house, and the 71-year-old unlocks it with her smartphone to retrieve her groceries and flowers.

Due to her ill health, she has trouble getting out to the shops, and the robots have been a ‘God send’. Delivery drones have become so essential to the septuagenarian that she uses them almost every day. She added that her great-grandchildren enjoy it as well.


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