“Hungry? I can help,” reads the label on the small white box, which rolls busily along the pavement, dodging pedestrians.
Since Starship launched in Milton Keyes in 2018, small, autonomous delivery robots have become a common sight, ferrying everything from pizzas to loo roll across the city.
“People are so used to seeing them, they just walk around them,” says Henry Harris-Burland, Starship’s vice-president of marketing. “The biggest compliment we get is that our delivery robots aren’t special anymore – they’re simply part of the infrastructure.”
But are delivery robots set to become as mainstream elsewhere – or no more than a trend?
How does robot delivery work?
Starship’s business model has two strands. It runs its own delivery services and partners with retailers such as Tesco and the Co-op.
“Residents choose from a range of grocery items, schedule their delivery, then drop a pin where they want their delivery to go,” explains Jason Perry, Co-op’s head of online development.
“They can see the robot’s journey in real time, on an interactive map. They get an alert when the robot arrives, then they use the app to unlock it.”
Perry says the robots have become an integral part of the supermarket’s offering, particularly for small households or those short of time.
“The robots form part of our delivery network. They don’t replace conventional deliveries but where geography and basket size are suitable, or there are limited last-mile options, they certainly have a function,” he says.
“Customers are often shopping for top-up items, treats or meals for the evening in. They can also do a full grocery shop.”
The pros and cons of using delivery robots
Most delivery services carried out by humans are subsidised by the retailer to the tune of a pound or two. Harris-Burland says that a robot delivery costs Starship or one of its grocery customers less than using a person. Research from ResearchAndMarkets.com shows that delivery by robots can cut costs by 80% to 90%.
And there is a reduction in the retailer’s carbon footprint. Last year, research from Starship and Milton Keynes Council found that in the three and a half years it had been operating, 280,000 car journeys had been avoided, equating to more than 500,000 miles.
This, they say, meant that 137 tons of CO2 and 22kg of NOx were saved. In addition, the volume of harmful airborne micro-particles, measured in units of particulate matter (PM), saw a reduction of 23kg of PM-10 and 12kg of the smaller PM-2.5.
But delivery robots are not suitable for all environments, observes Tim Jones, director of marketing, communications and sustainability for delivery firm DPDgroup UK.
DPD is currently trialling delivery robots from California-based Cartken around the Milton Keynes traffic-free Redway network to access the residential neighbourhoods of Shenley Church End and Shenley Lodge.
“We chose Milton Keynes partly because of its Redway network. We’re being realistic. We aren’t going to see huge numbers of delivery robots on every street in the UK. But there are plenty of places where they can operate very successfully – for example, in campus-style locations,” he says.
“The key is to think differently about the delivery model and infrastructure. In addition to the traditional delivery depot on the edge of town, we’re looking at much smaller operations within communities, closer to the end customer.”
Starship also operates successfully in locations outside Milton Keynes, recently extending its arrangement with the Co-op to cover Wellingborough, Higham Ferrers and Rushden in Northamptonshire. And the robots have been delivering in Northampton and around Cambourne, in Cambridgeshire.
“Northampton is traditionally laid out, with narrow pavements, city roads, some tricky road crossings and blind corners,” says Harris-Burland. There are, naturally, limitations for the robots. “Heavy traffic and lots of people can reduce the average speed of the robot, which reduces the quality and speed of the service to customers,” notes Perry. “As these robots evolve, we expect more of the UK will become accessible and suitable.”
Starship has had success in trials in London’s Southwark and London Bridge. The robots operated well, if a little more slowly than elsewhere because of the extra obstacles to navigate. But congestion isn’t as much of a hindrance as might have been expected, with Starship finding that pedestrian footfall one street back from the main road is around 10 times lower.
Meanwhile, the robots’ software is being updated “almost daily” as the devices learn from their experiences.
Could delivery robots be in your area soon?
But, says Harris-Burland, there are other reasons why robot delivery may not become the norm in urban areas. “There wouldn’t necessarily be as much demand right now in central London – which has an incredibly high density of on-demand services – as there might be in the suburbs, where other on-demand delivery is not available,” he says. “We see robots operating in cities like London, but at the moment we can make a bigger difference – and a bigger cost saving – outside of these high-density city centres.”
Manufacturers and retailers alike agree that delivery robots do indeed have a mainstream future as part of a portfolio of delivery methods.
Autonomous vans look set to be widely used as soon as technology and legislation allow, and companies such as DPD are looking into using drones for delivery.
“On-demand delivery is multimodal. The size of the goods being delivered should match the vehicle or the robot delivering it,” Harris-Burland points out.
“The most efficient and low-cost method should be used, depending on what’s going on. That might mean we live in a world in the future of autonomous electric vans, autonomous electric cars, scooters, humans, drones and robots. There’s absolutely no reason why that can’t be the case.”