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A City Locks Down to Fight Coronavirus, but Robots Come and Go

If any place was prepared for quarantine, it was Milton Keynes. Two years before the pandemic, a start-up called Starship Technologies deployed a fleet of rolling delivery robots in the small city about 50 miles northwest of London.

The squat six-wheeled robots shuttled groceries and dinner orders to homes and offices. As the coronavirus spread, Starship shifted the fleet even further into grocery deliveries. Locals like Emma Maslin could buy from the corner store with no human contact.

“There’s no social interaction with a robot,” Ms. Maslin said.

The sudden usefulness of the robots to people staying in their homes is a tantalizing hint of what the machines could one day accomplish — at least under ideal conditions. Milton Keynes, with a population of 270,000 and a vast network of bicycle paths, is perfectly suited to rolling robots. Demand has been so high in recent weeks, some residents have spent days trying to schedule a delivery.

In recent years, companies from Silicon Valley to Somerville, Mass., have poured billions of dollars into the development of everything from self-driving cars to warehouse robots. The technology is rapidly improving. Robots can help with deliveries, transportation, recycling, manufacturing.

ImageEmma Maslin, a resident of Milton Keynes, uses delivery robots for some of her groceries.
Credit…Ben Quinton for The New York Times

But even simple tasks like robotic delivery still face myriad technical and logistical hurdles. The robots in Milton Keynes, for example, can carry no more than two bags of groceries.

“You can’t do a big shop,” Ms. Maslin said. “They aren’t delivering from the superstores.”

A pandemic may add to demand but does not change what you can deploy, said Elliot Katz, who helps run Phantom Auto, a start-up that helps companies remotely control autonomous vehicles when they encounter situations they cannot navigate on their own.

“There is a limit to what a delivery bot can bring to a human,” Mr. Katz said. “But you have to start somewhere.”

Industry veterans know this well. Gabe Sibley, an engineer and a professor who previously worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, started Zippy for sidewalk deliveries in 2017. But the San Francisco company quickly ran into challenges. The robots could move only at the pace of walking, around 1 mile per hour. That severely limits the delivery area, particularly for hot food, Mr. Sibley said.

The company never deployed any robots, selling in 2018.

“In this country, where we designed our cities around the car, the solution to sidewalk delivery is to use the roads,” Mr. Sibley said.

Founded in 2014 and backed by more than $80 million, Starship Technologies is based in San Francisco, and it has deployed most of its robots on college campuses in the United States. Equipped with cameras, radar and other sensors, the robots navigate by matching their surroundings to digital maps built by the company in each new location.

Credit…Ben Quinton for The New York Times

The company chose Milton Keynes for a wider deployment in part because the robots could navigate it with relative ease. Built after World War II, the city was carefully planned, with most streets laid out in a grid and bicycle and pedestrian paths, called “redways,” running beside them.

When the Starship robots first arrived in Milton Keynes, one of the fastest-growing cities in Britain, Liss Page thought they were cute but pointless. “The first time I met one, it was stuck on the curb outside my house,” she said.

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Then, in early April, she opened a letter from the National Health Service advising her not to leave the house because her asthma and other conditions made her particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. In the weeks that followed, the robots provided a much-needed connection to the outside world.

Smaller deliveries suit Ms. Page because she lives alone. A longtime vegan, she can order nut milk and margarine straight to her door. But like the grocery vans that deliver larger orders across the city, the Starship robots are ultimately limited by what is on the shelves.

“You pad out the order with things you don’t really need to make the delivery charge worthwhile,” Ms. Page said. “With the last delivery, all I got were the things I didn’t really need.”

Credit…Ben Quinton for The New York Times

Residents like Ms. Page set deliveries through a smartphone app. They typically pay a British pound (about $1.20) for each delivery, but in Milton Keynes, Starship has raised the price to as much as £2 during the busiest times so more people will shop in off hours.

The robots deliver groceries to doctors, nurses and other employees of the N.H.S. for free. They even join the Thursday night tribute to the N.H.S., blinking their headlights as residents clap and cheer from their doorsteps. The fleet of 80 robots will soon expand to 100.

Though this may be the most extensive deployment of delivery robots in the world, others have popped up in recent years. In Christiansburg, Va., Paul and Susie Sensmeier can arrange drugstore and bakery deliveries via flying drone. Wing, which is a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has been offering drone deliveries in the area since the fall.

They can order penne pasta, marinara sauce and toilet paper. But they can’t order prescription medicines via Wing — the drones are stocked at a Wing warehouse, not at a drugstore — and like the robots in Milton Keynes, the drones can carry only so much.

“I can only get two muffins or two croissants,” Susie Sensmeier, 81, said.

Companies like Wing and Starship hope they can expand the reach of these services and refine their skills. Now there is new impetus.

“Overnight, delivery has gone from a convenience to a vital service,” said Starship’s chief executive, Lex Bayer. “Our fleets are driving nonstop, 14 hours a day.”

Credit…Ben Quinton for The New York Times

In Milton Keynes, Starship has gradually expanded the reach of its service, doubling its fleet and teaming up with several new grocery stores. It recently started a service in Chevy Chase, Md., not far from Washington. The company can create digital maps for the robots in days.

Ms. Page, a 51-year-old business analyst who has lived in Milton Keynes for more than a quarter-century, believes the service can become a viable business.

“It just seemed like a vanity project before,” she said. “The pandemic has given them a platform to launch a real business.”

But as much as the pandemic has lifted start-ups like Starship, it has also hurt them. Many of the college campuses where Starship deployed its robots have shut down. Though the company has worked to shift those robots to nearby locations, it has been forced to lay off employees and contractors. Janel Steinberg, a company spokeswoman, said the cuts were “primarily about rebalancing our work force to adapt to the demand in different locations.”

Nuro, a start-up in Silicon Valley, has long promised larger robots that can drive on public roads. But it has not yet deployed these robots, and like most self-driving car companies, Nuro has been forced to curtail its testing. Rather than making deliveries, its robots are shuttling supplies across an old basketball stadium in Sacramento that has been converted into a temporary hospital.

Sidewalk robots and flying drones also require human help. Starship and similar companies must monitor the progress of each robot from afar, and if anything goes wrong, remote operators take over. With social distancing, that has become more difficult. Remote operators who once worked in call centers have moved into their homes.

Mr. Katz’s company, Phantom Auto, is now helping companies make the transition. “This is a very, very difficult problem to solve,” Mr. Katz said. “We are in the autonomy-doesn’t-quite-work-yet business.”