delivery robots lined up outside of grocery store

Before coronavirus-related lockdowns, the sight of robots ferrying food deliveries to customers' front doors would have seemed futuristic. But not in Milton Keynes.

Starship Technologies, the San Francisco-based firm started by two Skype founders, has been running a robot delivery service in the English city - which is 75 kilometres north of London - for over two years, completing over 100,000 deliveries.

Earlier this year, the company launched in six new cities, including a grocery delivery service in Washington, D.C.

Customers make their grocery or takeaway order with an app, track the six-wheeled bots as they make their journey, then open the lid and retrieve their order with their phone.

The firm says demand for robot deliveries has surged in the last three months due to the coronavirus pandemic, as locals look for contactless ways to purchase meals or groceries.

"People that may be self-isolating at home can get their groceries on-demand in a contactless way using our robots," explains Henry Harris-Burland from Starship. "They don't have to go to the store, they don't have to leave their homes."

The surge in demand has seen the firm double the number of Milton Keynes homes its robots can drive to, and double the number of black and white, box-shaped bots in its fleet to over 100.

"Sometimes I take a video and WhatsApp it to friends and say; 'Hey, look what's happening in Milton Keynes,'" says local Karim Pabani.

"It was much easier to actually get one of the robots and much quicker," says resident Liza Biro, who used a robot to get a delivery of ice lollies.

It's not clear whether demand will remain as the virus outbreak subsides and UK authorities gradually ease social distancing and lockdown measures.

Harris-Burland believes residents won't go back to more traditional shopping habits.

"We definitely see this trend continuing with more and more people embracing delivery robots," he says. "Not everybody wants to necessarily spend time running errands."