Contactless food delivery: Are robots the future?

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Are these the droids you’re looking for? Starship’s robot fleet expands its delivery services as UK stays home

With most of us confined to our homes to help contain COVID-19, the topic of food delivery services – and the current overwhelming demand for them – has taken centre stage. But while many of us struggle to secure a supermarket delivery slot, many restaurants and cafes, which have been forced to close their doors to dine-in guests, are viewing delivery services as a potential lifeline for their business.

One company that is taking food delivery to another level is Starship Technologies, which uses robots to deliver lunches, dinners and snacks to customers. Now, the firm says, it is working “as quickly as possible” to expand its robot delivery service so it can help more people after requests from grocery stores, restaurants and even other delivery companies for help with deliveries.

“We can appreciate we’re all living in unprecedented times now, but we believe as a community we can work together to help each other and we’re honoured that our robots can be part of the solution,” a Starship spokesperson told Food & Farming Technologies.

Our robots provide contactless deliveries. As people are spending more time at home at the moment, including the elderly and more vulnerable, they can get their food and groceries delivered straight to their door.”

Expanding its service

Using the Starship deliveries app, customers can order food and drink to be delivered from a range of local eateries and grocery shops, and once ordered, the robot’s entire journey and location can be monitored via smartphone. The robots can carry items within a 4-mile radius, and for security, the cargo bay is mechanically locked throughout the journey and can be opened only by the recipient on their app. The location of the robots is also tracked, so users know exactly the location of their order and receive a notification at the time of arrival.

Food and drink to be delivered from a range of local eateries and grocery shops

Food and drink to be delivered from a range of local eateries and grocery shops

For anyone worried about their food reaching them unscathed, the robots – which move at pedestrian speed and weigh no more than 100 pounds – have 10 cameras, ultrasound sensors, radar, and GPS to help detect and avoid any obstacles such as cars, pedestrians, traffic lights and pavements.

The service currently operates in five countries around the world and tens of cities. Last week, it expanded its service area in Milton Keynes for food and grocery deliveries to offer it to more than 180,000 additional people, and says it expects to expand into other cities across the UK soon.

Cost and environmental savings

Alongside tapping into a desire for ‘contactless’ delivery services, Starship points to additional benefits of using its robot fleet instead of traditional delivery methods.

For example the company, which was founded by two Skype co-founders, Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, withformer AirBnB executive Lex Bayer as its CEO, is keen to stress the cost and environmental savings from using battery-powered electric delivery robots as an alternative to cars or motorbikes.

Citing a report by Mckinsey which says the final leg of a delivery comprises up to 50 percent of a product’s total transportation cost, the Starship spokesperson says “Inefficient and unsustainable delivery is the main bottleneck in the growth of e-commerce. Traditional methods of last-mile delivery are complicated and expensive, but there are ways to make it work… Starship’s robots can dramatically reduce these end-to-end costs.”

Starship says that once the constraints around inefficiency and sustainability have been removed, the industry can grow and follow a more environmentally friendly route.

According to the American Lung Association State of the Air 2017 report, transportation produces more than one quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gases that exacerbate climate change. The introduction of robots will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases stemming from delivery services,” it adds.

Using central Milton Keynes as an example, the firm says the traffic congestion rises above 85 percent of the road or junction’s capacity, and roads that lead into the town often see 100 percent or more of its capacity, according to Milton Keynes Council. The Starship electric-powered robot deliveries will help ease this congestion, it says.

Paying a premium

The company also believes that in the long run, the introduction of ‘on-demand’ delivery will change consumer behaviour.

Almost 25 percent of consumers are willing to pay a premium for the privilege of same-day or instant delivery. This share is likely to increase and could open-up services [and]products for those in need,” says Starship’s spokesperson.

People will now purchase an increase of items due to convenience, cost and speed. Americans are shifting consumption habits to brands centered on direct-to-consumer relationships. Distributors need nimble supply chains to serve consumer needs in real-time and Starship’s robots provide the perfect solution.”

The service has already received a thumbs up from locals; Mayor of Milton Keynes, Councillor Sam Crooks, says the robots have “become an iconic sight in the town”.

With the increasing demand for delivery services at odds with the public need to remain a safe distance from other human beings, there is now more of a chance that the future of food delivery may well be robotic.

Image source: Starship Technologies

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Christine writes about technology’s impact on business, and is a long-term contributor to specialist IT titles including Channel Pro and Microscope. She also writes for Raconteur and is regularly featured in The Times and Sunday Times.

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