Autonomous delivery robots will hit the streets of Greater Manchester this week as the Co-op partners with the self-driving logistics company Starship Technologies to bring its six-wheeled bots to a seventh British city.
Five years after making their first UK delivery in Milton Keynes, Starship has expanded to cover hundreds of thousands of households across the country, offering services in cities including Cambridge, Leeds and Northampton.
The latest expansion, to Sale, will be available to a further 24,000 residents in the catchment area of two Co-op stores in Washday Road and Coppice Avenue.
The robots, which are the size of a mini-fridge, use pavements to navigate at walking speed around their local areas, waiting to cross the road at the lights and sitting outside customers homes until they come outside and use the app to unlock them.
It is a safer approach to driverless vehicles than full-sized delivery trucks, and has let Starship offer more than 4m deliveries around the world since it first launched in Silicon Valley in April 2018.
As part of the rollout the company has partnered with local leaders in each new delivery area, avoiding some of the heated conflicts that can occur when a tech startup tries to colonise public space to offer its services.
Trafford council welcomed the rollout to Sale, with Stephen Adshead, the executive member for environmental services, saying he was “excited” to be working with the company, and he hoped it would help residents cut car use.
“The robots are a lot of fun and it will be great to see them taking to the streets of the borough,” Adshead said. “Instead of driving to the Co-ops involved in the scheme, why not leave the car at home and have your groceries delivered by a friendly robot?”
Starship is not the only firm offering similar services worldwide. Competitors have been accused of selling “mechanical turks” – systems that pretend to be autonomous but are really just hidden human labour. In 2019, the robot delivery company Kiwi admitted that its bots were only “semi-autonomous”, relying on a swath of human workers in Colombia, where the company’s founders hail from, to check in on each bot every 5-10 seconds to keep them on track.
Starship says its robots are genuinely autonomous, meeting the “level 4” standard, which requires no human interaction beyond exceptional circumstances: in practice, it says robots are autonomous “99%” of the time, with some robots achieving multiple deliveries in a row without any human oversight. Remote assistants remain on hand for safety reasons, however.