Oman Daily Observer

Self-driving delivery robots take the strain out of shopping

- OLIVIER DEVOS

It’s famous for its roundabout­s and statues of concrete cows. But the English 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 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, said.

The US company, which has quadrupled its deliveries in the UK, now makes 1,000 deliveries a day.

“Demand hasn’t dropped off,” Curtis said, adding that as stay-athome restrictio­ns were lifted, users became more willing to try the technology.

The company has signed a new agreement with longstandi­ng partner the Co-op Group’s chain of supermarke­ts, to provide 300 new robots by the end of the year and triple deliveries.

In front of one of the retailer’s shops in Milton Keynes, which was the first to use the delivery machines in 2018, a dozen robots are ready and waiting.

With their antenna topped with an orange flag to aid visibility, they look almost like a queue of empty bumper cars.

An employee emerges from the shop and places the newest order inside one of the robots — a small 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 two founders of Skype — are 99 per cent autonomous.

But if they become stuck, an operator can take control.

Once launched, the robot navigates the maze of footpaths that wind between Milton Keynes’ red brick houses.

When the way is clear, it can reach speeds of up to six kilometres per hour — a little more than a reasonable walking pace.

Deliveries reach customers in less than an hour.

The Co-op said the use of the robots is environmen­tally friendly as well as convenient, with 70 per cent of Starship’s customers going without a trip in the car to a store or receiving a delivery from a fuelpowere­d 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 the United States but also in Estonia, Germany and Denmark.

The tech firm is not alone in the delivery robot race.

In the United States, for example, where it operates mainly on university campuses, it is jockeying for position with start-ups and logistics giants such as Amazon and Fedex.

 ?? — AFP ?? An autonomous robot called Starship is pictured on its way to deliver groceries from a nearby Co-op supermarke­t in Milton Keynes.
— AFP An autonomous robot called Starship is pictured on its way to deliver groceries from a nearby Co-op supermarke­t in Milton Keynes.

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