When Starship Technologies let loose its delivery robots on the streets of Milton Keynes, it raised more than a few eyebrows among the town’s 230,000 residents.
The project, which began in 2018, was billed as a world-leading experiment in home delivery. The idea was locals could download an app to buy takeaways and groceries that would be delivered to them via one of Starships six-wheeled machines.
Using a combination of GPS, computer vision and bespoke mapping software, the robots navigate their own path through the city to the drop-off point a customer has pinpointed on the Starship app.
The robots – manufactured by Starship Technologies – are able to cross the road by themselves
Credit: Starship Technologies
During the pandemic, their ranks have swelled to more than 100 as people try to stay home and supermarkets struggle to fulfill delivery demand. That means Milton Keynes is now home to the world’s largest fleet of autonomous delivery robots.
"Orders have tripled over the last six months," says Henry Harris-Burland, marketing VP of Starship Technologies, a company founded in Estonia by the creators of Skype.
Since March, the company has also doubled its delivery area, with plans to launch in two or three new cities later this year.
But the self-driving machines have taken some getting used to.
Attacks, anger and frustration
"They’re a nuisance, they’re always getting in my way," says James, a tradesman as he shopped for groceries inside the Broughton branch of Co-op where the robots queued outside.
At times, frustration has turned to anger. Residents have been caught kicking the ungainly robots and ripping off their orange flags – designed to make them more visible to passing cars.
Max Chapman, whose job used to involved driving around the city to re-charge robots that had run out of battery, heard about one being attacked by chainsaw on his first day in the job in March 2019.
When an order is made via the Starship app, a robot directs itself to the store or restaurant where it waits to be loaded
Credit: Morgan Meaker
In another incident, he witnessed a man trying to bundle a robot into the family car. "As he was dragging it in, I pulled up in [my] van and shouted at him then he threw it out the van and wheel-span off," he says.
Chapman, who worked at Starship Technologies for four months in 2019, says attacks on the robots’ flags were the most common form of vandalism. "It’s mostly just kids really, kicking them about a not really treating them with respect."
One local resident, Sam, says the robots have become a local tourist attraction. But in March, he saw one of the robots pull out unexpectedly at a roundabout, forcing a car to brake sharply.
Although Starship ensures there is good will between its robots and residents, the company admits there have been "incidents" and said the robots have been designed to sound a "piercing" siren if they are picked up or tampered with although they were not able to provide The Telegraph with evidence of this feature.
Discouraging anti-social behaviour
As more companies trial a variety of autonomous vehicles in cities around the world, one of their greatest challenges is overcoming residents’ reactions.
A 2019 report by the government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles found public attitudes towards autonomous vehicles was "nuanced and complex" although it focused on self-driving cars, not delivery robots.
Other cities have struggled with vandalism and mis-use when they tried to roll out autonomous vehicles or new technologies, raising questions about whether societies are ready for the widespread roll-out of such machines.
In Arizona, residents have attacked self-driving cars with rocks, slashed their tires and even threatened test drivers with guns.
For Starship, the ability to win over local residents and dissaude them against theft and vandalism will prove key to the company’s plans to expand.
When a robot is loaded with shopping, it says "thank you" or "very kind"
Credit: Starship Technologies
The firm has now launched a charm offensive via social media targeting different groups within the local community.
Starship moderates the "MK Starship Deliveries" Facebook group of 8,000 members who are encouraged to ask questions about the robots and share pictures of their deliveries.
Company representatives have also made guest appearances at community cycling groups to explain how members can safely share bike lanes with the robots and they regularly visit local schools, enabling children to get to know the robots up close.
Despite grumbles and attacks, efforts by Starship Technologies to win over locals have already had an impact.
Chapman, the former Starship employee, says: "I think have a generally good perception of and open-mindedness to the robots in general, especially for disabled people – a couple I’ve spoken to have said it’s saved them so much hassle," he says.
Credit: Starship Technologies
The robots – which look like mini-fridges on wheels – are not exactly streamline. Instead, they lurch along, with their orange flags wobbling unsteadily overhead.
The company would not comment on whether the clunky design was an attempt to ease concerns that dystopian robots are taking over, but Starship’s Harris-Burland did say the design is "not by accident".
Standing outside the Monkston Park Co-op store, where the robots come and go while he talks, Harris-Burland says: "When people hear the word robot, they don’t necessarily imagine a Starship delivery robot like this. They maybe think of a humanoid or something a bit more imposing."
"This robot is sort of very friendly. It doesn’t look threatening. It travels relatively slowly on the pavements. It’s not like these more traditional "terminator" robots and I think that’s been very important."
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Residents to the rescue
Fostering this good-will not only helps the company continue its expansion without opposition, but also makes residents more likely to rescue the robots when they get into trouble.
The robots are described as "99pc autonomous" because they can send alerts to controllers working remotely in Starship offices around the world if they encounter a glitch or find themselves stranded.
However staff cannot always come to the robot’s aid immediately, leaving an opportunity for members of the public to step in.
A local news website reported on a "valiant" teenagers’ rescue of a robot that had somehow become stuck, like a beetle on its back.
A TikTok post from June shows two girls saving a robot that has tipped over while trying to climb a curb.
Another video on YouTube shows a passer-by rescuing a robot "from some kids who had thrown snow balls in its eyes".
The company is not only trying to woo local residents but also regulators. In 2017, it helped lawmakers in Virginia and Idaho write laws to enable delivery robots to operate in those states.
In Milton Keynes, Harris-Burland says the Starship team was in close collaboration with local councillors before they launched – a strategy that stands in stark opposition to companies’ like Uber that tend to launch first and deal with regulatory issues later.
"There’s two ways companies can launch in places – they either just go and launch and don’t tell anyone," he says. "Or they build up a relationship with local city councillors and we always do the latter, we think it’s really important to actually work with the city to make sure everyone’s comfortable with the technology and everyone can have the opportunity to ask questions."
Starship’s Milton Keynes endeavour shows that delivery robots are now technically possible. Aside from a few comical glitches – including in August, when a delivery robot threw itself into the canal as a result of a mapping error – the machines have been mostly successful at delivering groceries all over the city.
Getting the technology right might be the easy part. But winning over residents could still prove to be the real challenge.