A client picks up a delivery from an autonomous robot called Starship delivering groceries from a nearby Co-op supermarket in Milton Keynes. AFP/Daniel Leal-Olivas
MILTON KEYNES - It's famous for its roundabouts and statues of concrete cows. But the English town of Milton Keynes now has another claim to fame -- a trundling army of shopping delivery robots.
Numbers have grown to 200 in Milton Keynes and nearby Northampton, which introduced the service in 2020, with plans for as many as 500 to be in action in five more places across the country.
According to the robots' operators, the squat white machines came into their own when Britain locked down last year as coronavirus hit the country.
"Everyone was so in need of contactless delivery during the pandemic," Andrew Curtis, head of UK operations at Starship Technologies, told AFP.
The US company, which has quadrupled its deliveries in the UK, now makes 1,000 deliveries a day.
The company has signed a new agreement with longstanding partner the Co-op Group's chain of supermarkets, to provide 300 new robots by the end of the year and triple deliveries.
In front of one of the retailer's shops in Milton Keynes, which was the first to use the delivery machines in 2018, a dozen robots are ready and waiting.
Fitted with cameras, sensors and a loud alarm if needed, the robots -- first created in 2014 by the two founders of Skype -- are 99 percent autonomous.
But if they become stuck, an operator can take control.
Once launched, the robot navigates the maze of footpaths that wind between Milton Keynes' red brick houses.
When the way is clear, it can reach speeds of up to 6km/h -- a little more than a reasonable walking pace.
Deliveries reach customers in less than an hour.
The Co-op said the use of the robots is environmentally friendly as well as convenient, with 70 percent of Starship's customers going without a trip in the car to a store or receiving a delivery from a fuel-powered vehicle.
Under the delivery system, the robots remain the property of Starship and orders are placed via an application they developed.
The company manages 1,000 robots, mainly in Britain and the United States but also in Estonia, Germany and Denmark.