A closed city to fight the coronavirus, but the robots come and go

An employee loads an order into a Starship robot outside a store in Milton Keynes, England on April 16, 2020. (Ben Quinton / The New York Times)
An employee loads an order into a Starship robot outside a store in Milton Keynes, England on April 16, 2020. (Ben Quinton / The New York Times)

If there was a place ready for quarantine, it was Milton Keynes. Two years before the pandemic, a startup company called Starship Technologies deployed a fleet of rolling robots to make deliveries in the small town about 80 kilometers northwest of London.

Squat six-wheeled robots moved grocery shopping and food orders to homes and offices. Following the spread of the coronavirus, Starship made the flotilla focus even more on home delivery of groceries. Locals like Emma Maslin were able to shop from the corner store without having any kind of human contact.

"There is no social interaction with a robot," said Maslin.

The sudden usefulness of robots for people staying at home is a promising sample of the possibilities of machines in the future, at least under ideal conditions. Milton Keynes, With a population of 270,000 inhabitants and a large network of bicycle paths, it is perfect for rolling robots. In recent weeks, demand has been so high that some residents have tried to schedule delivery for days.

In recent years, there have been companies since Silicon Valley to Somerville, Massachusetts, who have invested billions of dollars in the development of everything from autonomous vehicles to warehouse robots. Technology is improving by leaps and bounds. Robots can help with delivery, transportation, recycling, and manufacturing.

However, even the simplest tasks, such as robotic home delivery, still face technical and logistical challenges. For example, Milton Keynes robots cannot carry more than two bags from the supermarket.

(Ben Quinton / The New York Times)
(Ben Quinton / The New York Times)

"You can't make big purchases," Maslin said. "They don't deliver from superstores."

A pandemic may increase demand, but it will not change what can be mobilized, said Elliot Katz, a director at Phantom Auto, a startup that helps other companies control autonomous vehicles remotely when they encounter situations where they cannot circulate. by themselves.

"Deliveries of delivery bots to humans are limited," Katz noted. "But you have to start somewhere."

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Starship Technologies, founded in 2014 and backed by more than $ 80 million, is headquartered in San Francisco. It has deployed most of its robots on university campuses in the United States. The robots are equipped with cameras, radars and other sensors, and they circulate when they find common points between the spaces that surround them with digital maps that the company has created of each place..

The company chose Milton Keynes to expand its development in part because the robots could circulate with relative ease. The city was built after World War II with careful planning: most of the streets form a grid and the pedestrian and bicycle lanes, called “red lanes,” are located on one side of the streets.

  (Ben Quinton / The New York Times)
(Ben Quinton / The New York Times)

When Starship's robots first arrived in Milton Keynes, one of the fastest growing cities in the UK, Liss Page thought they were cute, but useless. "The first time I saw one, it got stuck on the edge of the sidewalk outside my house"He commented.

Then, in early April, Page opened a letter from the National Health Service (NHS) advising her not to leave her home because her asthma and other conditions made her particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. In the weeks that followed, the robots provided him with a much-needed connection to the outside world.

Page accommodates small deliveries because she lives alone. She is vegan and can order margarine and seed milk right to her front door. However, just like the vans at stores that deliver larger orders across the city, Starship robots are ultimately limited to what they have on their shelves.

"You fill the order with things you don't really need to make the delivery charge worth it," Page said. "Last time, I didn't really need any of the things that came my way."

Emma Maslin, who uses courier robots to do some of her shopping, in Milton Keynes, England, on April 16, 2020. (Ben Quinton / The New York Times)

Emma Maslin, who uses courier robots to do some of her shopping, in Milton Keynes, England, on April 16, 2020. (Ben Quinton / The New York Times)

Residents like Page place their orders using a smartphone app. They typically pay in sterling (around $ 1.2) for each delivery, but in Milton Keynes, Starship has raised the price to as much as £ 2 during the busiest times in an effort to spread demand throughout the day.

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Robots deliver purchases to doctors, nurses, and other NHS employees for free. They even join the NHS tribute on Thursday nights, blinking their headlights when residents applaud and cheer from their front doors. The fleet of 80 robots will soon expand to 100.

Although this is perhaps the largest deployment of delivery robots in the world, others have emerged in recent years. In Christiansburg, Virginia, Paul and Susie Sensmeier can order from the pharmacy and bakery using a flying drone. Since the fall, Wing, a subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet, has offered drone deliveries in the area.

They can order penne, marinara sauce, and toilet paper. However, with Wing they cannot order prescription drugs - drones are supplied from a Wing warehouse, not from a pharmacy - and, like Milton Keynes robots, drones cannot carry much.

(REUTERS / Julio-Cesar Chavez)
(REUTERS / Julio-Cesar Chavez)

"I can only order two pancakes or two croissants," said Susie Sensmeier, 81.

Companies like Wing and Starship hope to expand their services and refine their skills. Now there is a new impetus.

"Overnight deliveries have gone from being a convenience service to a vital one”Commented Starship CEO Lex Bayer. "Our fleets drive non-stop, fourteen hours a day."

In Milton Keynes, Starship has gradually expanded the scope of its service, doubling its fleet and teaming up with several new supermarkets. Recently, he began serving in Chevy Chase, Maryland, not far from Washington.

Page, 51, a business analyst who has lived in Milton Keynes for more than a quarter of a century, believes the service can become a viable business.

"Before, it just seemed like a vanity project," he said. "The pandemic has given them a platform to launch a real business."

* Copyright: 2020 The New York Times Company

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Sam Conley

Sam Conley is new to online journalism but she is keen to learn. She is an MBA from a reputed university. She brings together relevant news pieces from various industries. She loves to share quick news updates. She is always in search of interesting news so that she can share them as well to Sunriseread's readers who could enjoy them with their morning coffee.

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