In late March, as the UK went into lockdown, grocery shopping became difficult. Home delivery slots were almost impossible to secure as would-be customers raced to order online. Shoppers faced long queues, with shops restricting the number of people who could be in a store at any one time.

Shoppers in Milton Keynes, about 50 miles north-west of London, however, had another option. A small army of 80 or so delivery robots, operated by Estonian company Starship, kept steadfastly trundling through the streets, taking groceries to homes without human contact needed.

Robot deliveries of groceries have thrived during the pandemic. The robots involved look like white cool boxes on wheels and can travel autonomously — at a rather sedate four miles per hour — to any location pinpointed on a mobile phone app.

They can climb up kerbs (but not stairs) and come equipped with speakers so they can “talk” to people if necessary. Customers unlock the storage compartment with their mobile phone when the robot arrives and retrieve their order.

2018.03.08 Starship Robot Activation Intuit.

Sometimes, says Jason Perry, head of online development at UK consumer co-operative Co-op Food, purchasers send back thank-you notes in the robot when it returns.

“It has been a real lifeline for customers who haven’t been able to get outside their homes,” says Perry. “We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for robot deliveries since the pandemic began. We’ve doubled the order numbers and seen a four-fold increase in sales.”  

Co-op had been using the Starship robots before the pandemic. It was the first retailer to adopt them when Starship began trialling the robots in Milton Keynes two years ago. But Covid-19 has dramatically accelerated adoption.

The robots’ path has not been completely smooth. Customer complaints about bugs and usage difficulties are prominent among Starship app reviews. Some object to the small markup in price on the goods that Co-op and other retailers put on the goods delivered by robot. But demand has been so strong that Co-op is increasing the service from two stores to eight.

“We have plans to increase to 100 robots,” says Perry.

Co-op, which had been slower than many of its UK grocery store rivals to move to online ordering and home delivery, has suddenly found itself with one of Britain’s most futuristic shopping options, thanks to the partnership with Starship.

In the US, where Starship had already been operating on a number of college campuses, the company has also been establishing operations in a number of city locations — from the likes of Mountain View, in the San Francisco bay area of California, to Frisco, in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area of Texas.

Starship Robots deliver food to the Mason community on the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services/George Mason University.

With its automated delivery service, Starship is not the only Estonian artificial intelligence company to have been increasing business during the pandemic. Since throwing off the shackles of rule by the old USSR in 1991, Estonia has built a reputation for companies that specialise in advanced technology.

Cleveron, another Estonian company, makes automated locker systems that dispense parcels and groceries to shoppers. It has seen increased orders from grocery store customers.

“These days we see that robotic products are favourites because they offer a completely touch-free experience,” says Mihkel Ilp, chief operating officer at Cleveron. “You just scan your code, the door opens, you grab your groceries and everything is done in 10 seconds.”

As the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the leading supermarket chains in Estonia installed Cleveron units within a couple of weeks. Several international clients expanded trials that they had with the company.

“It was the kind of quick decision making that we haven’t seen previously,” says Mr Ilp, adding that it “generally takes at least three to six months to get to this point”. Cleveron operates about 4,000 parcel hardware terminals for some of the world’s top retailers, including Walmart, and delivers about 1.3m packages a month.

Cleveron
Credit: Cleveron.

Cleveron’s robots do not trundle the streets like Starship’s but they are robots just the same. Behind what looks like a sheet metal box is a lot of software that sorts and delivers goods efficiently.

Cleveron is testing a fleet of mobile delivery robots and has plans for a network of lockers integrated into bus stops across Estonia. Its aim is that every village and small town would have access to such automated delivery.

The key to automated logistics is not the eye-catching robots, but the network and the clever choreography behind the scenes. Only then can home delivery be done with efficiency and at scale, says Duncan Tatton-Brown, chief financial officer at Ocado. The UK company has spent 20 years developing automated grocery warehouses, staffed by swarms of robots.

“I could open an online grocery in my living room by installing a few freezers and delivering by hand,” says Tatton-Brown. “I could even add a robot that would look good moving around.”

But, he adds, the trick is to do it profitably: “Unless I build the ecosystem around it, I will never get the economies of scale.”

At Ocado’s warehouses, the robots are only the tip of the operation. The crucial technology is the machine learning software that helps optimise everything from the supply chain to predictive maintenance on the robots. It is this that allows an order of 50 items to be put together in just six minutes.

Handling a surge in online shopping simply by adding more delivery drivers and vans comes with a high cost. Tesco recently said that initiatives to increase online delivery would increase costs by up to £925m for the 2020/21 financial year, offsetting the boost the supermarket got from increased food sales.

Ocado’s business model — long criticised for continued losses — is starting to look vindicated. It recently completed automated projects for such supermarket groups as Sobeys in Canada and Casino in France. The Kroger supermarket group in the US is another customer.

Ocado's grocery packing robots
Speedy: Ocado’s robots move three times faster than the robots in Amazon’s warehouses

Ocado earns a commission based on the volumes put through these stores. And supermarkets may only be the beginning — the same technology that moves bags of shopping could be used in shifting around many other things, from medicines to airline baggage.

Hence investors treat Ocado as a technology company rather than a grocery business. It has a market capitalisation to match — at about £14.8bn, more than Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Marks and Spencer combined.

Shopping habits are undoubtedly changing. A recent study by UK payments provider JGOO found that 40% of people expect to decrease the number of visits to physical stores in the next six months.

If this is to become a permanent change beyond the pandemic, expect a ballet corps of warehouse robots, a handy smart locker and a friendly, six-wheeled automated delivery vehicle trundling along the street to be part of the future.

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