It’s famous for its roundabouts and statues of concrete cows. But country town of Milton Keynes now has another claim to fame — a trundling army of shopping delivery robots.
The six-wheeled automated vehicles, launched three years ago, barely get a second glance as they ply the residential streets, some 80 kilometres (49 miles) north of London.
Numbers have grown to 200 in Milton Keynes and nearby Northampton, which introduced the service in 2020, with plans for as many as 500 to be in action in five more places across the country.
According to the robots’ operators, the squat white machines came into their own when Britain locked down last year as coronavirus hit the country.
“Everyone was so in need of contactless delivery during the pandemic,” Andrew Curtis, head of UK operations at Starship Technologies, told AFP.
The US company, which has quadrupled its deliveries within the UK, now makes 1,000 deliveries every day.
“Demand hasn’t dropped off,” Curtis said, adding that as stay-at-home restrictions were lifted, users became more willing to undertake the technology.
The company has signed a brand new agreement with longstanding partner the Co-op Group’s chain of supermarkets, to produce 300 new robots by the top of the year and triple deliveries.
In front of 1 of the retailer’s shops in Milton Keynes, which was the primary to use the delivery machines in 2018, a dozen robots are ready and waiting.
With their antenna topped with an orange flag to help visibility, they give the impression of being almost sort of a queue of empty bumper cars.
An employee emerges from the shop and places the most recent order inside one among the robots — atiny low bag containing raspberries, yoghurt and a bouquet of flowers.
With its lid locked, the droid immediately dashes out onto the pavement. It turns and moves forward to cross the road before stopping, reversing suddenly to let a car pass.
Fitted with cameras, sensors and a loud alarm if needed, the robots — first created in 2014 by the 2 founders of Skype — are 99 percent autonomous.
But if they become stuck, an operator can take hold.
Once launched, the robot navigates the maze of fo
otpaths that wind between Milton Keynes’ red brick houses.
When the way is evident, it can reach speeds of up to 6 kilometres (nearly four miles) per hour — a touch quite an affordable walking pace.
Deliveries reach customers in but an hour.
The Co-op said the employment of the robots is environmentally friendly still as convenient, with 70 percent of Starship’s customers going without a visit within the car to a store or receiving a delivery from a fuel-powered vehicle.
Under the delivery system, the robots remain the property of Starship and orders are placed via an application they developed.
The company manages 1,000 robots, mainly in Britain and therefore the us but also in Estonia, Germany and Denmark.
The tech firm isn’t alone within the delivery robot race.
In the u. s., as an example, where it operates mainly on university campuses, it’s jockeying for position with start-ups and logistics giants like Amazon and FedEx.
As their numbers grow, the wheeled delivery drones have drawn criticism from unions, who fear they’ll take jobs from people.
The debate has made its way into US town halls, which are tasked with deciding limits on delivery journeys and rules around sharing the pavement.
“Fortunately, we’ve not had any accidents thus far,” Curtis said, adding that within the UK Starship has obtained permission from local authorities for every of its operating locations.
The robot carrying raspberries, yoghurt and flowers continues its journey, hesitating because it encounters a gaping hole, the results of ongoing road maintenance.
Roadworkers look non-plussed as they put down planks to bridge the gap.
When the delivery robot finally reaches its destination, Sheila Rose, 71, walks out of her house and unlocks it together with her smartphone, to retrieve her groceries and blooms.
“If I can use it, anyone can,” she said, leaning on a walking stick.
“Because of my pathological state, i’ve got problems getting dead set the shops,” she said, calling the robots a “godsend”.
The delivery drones became so essential to the septuagenarian that some weeks she uses them everyday. “I’ve got great-grandchildren. and that they find it irresistible,” she added.