At a time when delivery workers, fast food workers, cleaners, warehouse workers and other low paid workers start to put more pressure on the bosses they bring back their old boogey man to threaten us: our friend, the robot. Read recent article on the new ‘delivery robot’…
Robochops – on the road with a food-delivery droid
Not many futuristic technological advances involve lamb cutlets served with a choice of chips or salad. But this week, takeaway history was made when a Turkish restaurant in south London became the world’s first to use a robot delivery driver.
It’s part of a trial by takeaway app Just Eat. They have signed up seven mechanoids from Starship Technologies – a tech company run by two of Skype’s co-founders – and will be using them across Greenwich in the coming weeks. Now, when customers in the area order from a nearby restaurant, there’s a chance that their chicken chow mein will be brought to them by a robot.
Or, more accurately, a box on wheels. It’s a six-wheeled cube with a combination-locked lid that has enough space to fit a large food-delivery bag – essentially, a mobile locker to be opened by the customer, via a link they are sent when the robot arrives. Its design doesn’t exactly scream: “The future is here and it’s bearing a pizza!”
“It looks like a kid’s toy!” says a bearded pensioner as he watches it roll off to make the world’s first delivery – a portion of lamb cutlets and falafel from Taksim Meze restaurant on Blackheath Hill. It trundles along the pavements at four miles an hour, emitting the whine of an air-conditioning unit. When it comes within two metres of a human, it jerks to a stop, in case it knocks them down at its awesome top speed of 10 miles an hour.
Despite the fact that it looks like a radio-controlled car, it is actually self-operating. As it moves along, it creates a 3D map of the area and builds up a comprehensive memory of all the roads, pavements and bollards. When it’s required to make a delivery, it uses a GPS system to pinpoint itself on that map and thus avoid obstacles or driving off the edge of a kerb into oncoming traffic. But what happens when its attempting to pilot its way past a Friday night pub full of drunks?
“People will try to ride on them, steal them or tip them over,” says Henry Harris-Burland from Starship Technologies. “But we’ve fitted them with alarms, plus we’ve got robot operators in Estonia, and when there are any problems, a robot will ping camera footage to their screen so that they can either take control of it – or talk to people through the microphone.”
Judging by most peoples’ reactions to the cutlet bot rolling across the pavements, though, it doesn’t seem that likely to cause alarm. With the exception of one man who glares at it, everyone is totally blase. A builder says: “I’m used to them – I’ve seen them driving around here for weeks already.” A binman chips in: “Yeah, I saw it on the telly a few weeks ago.”
Within 10 minutes of leaving the restaurant, the robot has arrived at the customer’s address. Notified by her app, she opens the door to find herself face to face with a mechanoid delivery man – and seems totally, utterly nonplussed. “I’ve got a Roomba robot [vacuum cleaner] in my flat, so it’s not that out of the ordinary,” she says. “I guess it was less personal than a human, but to be honest, I’m not really looking to make friends with my delivery guy.”
But what about it stealing drivers’ jobs? “There actually aren’t enough drivers to cope with demand at peak times,” says Harris-Burland. “Plus, we’re hoping that with all the robot handlers we’ll need, it will create jobs overall.”
A beautiful co-existence of human and robot co-workers – might it come true? This remains to be seen. Judging by the comments from an onlooking roadsweeper, there may be an initial bit of suspicion. “If that turned up with my takeaway, I’d try to avoid paying it! Although, I suppose they’ve probably got a gun fitted somewhere.”