Robots ride to rescue as delivery risks rise

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by Rob Lever

What looks like a rolling picnic cooler stops at the crosswalk, waits for a car to pass and then navigates its way at a leisurely pace down the sidewalk in suburban Washington.

Three blocks away, Jake Williams and his three-year-old daughter E

milia wait for the delivery robot and take out bags with pizza, fresh fruit and a loaf of French bread from the nearby Broad Branch Market.

“We can’t go into the shops now,” says Williams, among those locked down due to the virus pandemic. “And it’s fun for her.”

The Starship delivery robots have seen surging demand in dozens of cities around the world, with consumers staying home and virus risks growing for both shoppers and delivery workers.

Starship began working with the Broad Branch in early April, when the corner store was forced to close to shoppers because it was too small to ensure proper social distancing.

Store owner Tracy Stannard said a fleet of up to 10 robots each day, managed by Starship, helps the market meet demands in the neighborhood. The store handles 60 to 70 deliveries daily, half by robot.

“Some people request the robot, they don’t even care about the groceries,” Stannard said. “It’s cute to see them roaming the neighborhood and it makes people happy.”

Robot deliveries from Starship and a handful of other companies meet only a tiny fraction of food deliveries, but highlight a need in a time of social distancing and pandemic fears.

The jump in demand comes as consumers see a trip to the grocery store as a perilous adventure, and retail employees are scrambling to keep safe.

More than 40 grocery store employees in the US have died from the virus, according to a Washington Post tally. And delivery workers around the US have staged protests to press safety demands. (AFP)

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