A City Locks Down to Fight Coronavirus, but Robots Come and Go
A City Locks Down to Fight Coronavirus but Robots. If any place was prepared for quarantine, it was Milton Keynes. Two years before the pandemic, a start-up called Starship Technologies deployed a fleet of rolling delivery robots in the small city about 50 miles northwest of London.
The squat six-wheeled robots shuttled groceries and dinner orders to homes and offices. As the coronavirus spread, Starship shifted the fleet even further into grocery deliveries. Locals like Emma Maslin could buy from the corner store with no human contact.
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“There’s no social interaction with a robot,” Ms. Maslin said. The sudden usefulness of the robots to people staying in their homes is a tantalizing hint of what the machines could one day accomplish — at least under ideal conditions. Milton Keynes, with a population of 270,000 and a vast network of bicycle paths, is perfectly suited to rolling robots. Demand has been so high in recent weeks, some residents have spent days trying to schedule a delivery.
But even simple tasks like robotic delivery still face myriad technical and logistical hurdles. The robots in Milton Keynes, for example, can carry no more than two bags of groceries.
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“You can’t do a big shop,” Ms. Maslin said. “They aren’t delivering from the superstores.” A pandemic may add to demand but does not change what you can deploy, said Elliot Katz, who helps run Phantom Auto, a start-up that helps companies remotely control autonomous vehicles when they encounter situations they cannot navigate on their own.
The robots deliver groceries to doctors, nurses and other employees of the N.H.S. for free. They even join the Thursday night tribute to the N.H.S., blinking their headlights as residents clap and cheer from their doorsteps. The fleet of 80 robots will soon expand to 100.
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Though this may be the most extensive deployment of delivery robots in the world, others have popped up in recent years. In Christiansburg, Va., Paul and Susie Sensmeier can arrange drugstore and bakery deliveries via flying drone. Wing, which is a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has been offering drone deliveries in the area since the fall.