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A Starship delivery robot in Milton Keynes
A Starship delivery robot in Milton Keynes Credit: Reuters

As the coronavirus pandemic means streets become more sparse and many employees stay at home, some groups are still hard at work.

三级成人视频As well as supermarket staff and medics, gig economy workers - Uber drivers, food delivery workers and gig-economy helpers, who have no formal training in hygiene or medicine, and often no health insurance, are many people’s only access to transport and essential services.

三级成人视频Some of them have said they are being forced to take an unacceptable risk.

三级成人视频“Gig workers have become frontline responders, often driving people to the hospital or delivering food to those who have been quarantined, like the elderly, disabled, or sick,” said a spokesman for Gig Workers Rising, a California-based group. 

“Yet these drivers have no sick days, no protective equipment, and no guidance about how this lockdown will affect them. They have received none of the benefits afforded other frontline workers, like paid sick time and paid family leave.”

Robots are no friend to gig workers. Uber drivers must toil in full knowledge that the company they depend on is working steadily to replace them by developing self-driving cars, a fact which has led to understandable unrest. 

But in a pandemic, could the robots boldly go where we humans cannot?

Delivery robots, which operate using autonomous technology三级成人视频, using the same sensors and systems as self-driving cars, or by teleoperation, controlled by workers in call centre-style facilities thousands of miles away, have not exactly taken the market by storm. 

三级成人视频Small pilots, like one at Berkeley University near San Francisco, have been plagued by mischievous students vandalising and interfering with the small pavement-bound robots, technical glitches and questions over whether the business model is truly transferrable. 

They have been slower to launch in the UK, but earlier this week robotics firm Starship Technologies launched a robot delivery service三级成人视频 in the centre of Milton Keynes, the first such opening in a UK city centre. 

But there are signs that as we are forced to embrace “social distancing”, robots could come into their own. 

“This is almost the coming out party for a lot of these robotics entities that can prove they have a safe vehicle that can do really essential stuff”, said Reilly Brennan, of Trucks, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm.

On the Berkeley campus, local company Kiwi, which has operated the robots since 2017, pivoted from delivering dinners to also distributing hand sanitiser and masks. A video posted on its website shows the robots being automatically filled by a vending machine. 

Daniel Laury, chief executive of Udelv, a US autonomous delivery company which currently operates in Texas and Arizona, said he had been approached by potential partners enquiring about how his company can help get crucial supplies to people. 

“With globalisation, this is a situation which is impacting us right now but it could happen in the future again. I think that autonomous deliveries are going to play a very large role in situations like this,” he says. 

“It’s not fully ready yet to deliver things like Amazon or your groceries everywhere in the country, but we’re moving towards that, and this is the best solution to avoid social interaction between people.”

三级成人视频It isn’t yet possible to have an entirely automated system. Having robots actually pack the cars, Laury says, “isn’t going to happen any time soon”. 

“Some functions are notoriously difficult to automate:  packing items in boxes, loading packages in trucks, and getting packages from a truck to a doorstep, to name a few.  

“Large and startup companies are addressing all of these tasks, but current technology is not yet mature enough to have a significant impact during this pandemic,” says Kevin Lynch, chair of the department of mechanical engineering at Northwestern University. 

三级成人视频But even if their role this time around is due to be tiny, the pandemic could help these companies in two major ways.

三级成人视频One is providing proof that they are needed. Long in the shadow of the self-driving taxi, the situation could be a boon for companies looking to prove themselves.

三级成人视频Delivery robots are regarded as a bit of a gimmick, for many people bringing to mind a Wall-E style box on wheels trundling along a pavement at slower-than-walking pace, carrying a takeaway a few hundred metres for a customer too lazy to walk. 

“I think it’s fair to say that a lot of these delivery companies did not appear to be essential until a few weeks ago,” says Brennan. 

His firm is an investor in Refraction AI, a company based near Detroit, Michigan, which operates tricycle-style unmanned vehicles which can travel in bicycle lanes or on roads at up to 25mph. He believes these larger vehicles are the way forward.

“It could be that some of our thoughts about delivery robots change slightly because historically people thought they were kind of a joke and now they’re doing something essential,” he says. 

“But that doesn’t necessarily change the fact that they have a really small cargo area and and really, really low speed. There’s probably a sweet spot, a Goldilocks design for speed and for space. I’m not sure that the sidewalk ones deliver on that.”

The other silver lining could be money. Laury says he has had a “ton” of interest from investors. Autonomous technology is expensive to develop and maintain, and there is still a lot of scepticism in the VC world. 

Greg Sands, of San Francisco firm Costanoa Ventures, has declined to invest in delivery robot companies before. “I don’t think Doordash is a particularly good business. I don't think Uber Eats is a particularly good business. I don't think GrubHub or Seamless is a particularly good business. And I don't think robots moving three miles an hour down the streets of Palo Alto are very good business,” he says. 

三级成人视频“The robots are really expensive, the consumer experience isn't great, they can't go very fast. So their delivery utilisation rate isn't that high. 

“They might not kill a pedestrian but they for sure can knock over and kill a cyclist or cause traffic woes or other things. So I'm just not convinced.”

However, he says, “there is clearly an emergency use case when we need to get supplies and food to people without putting delivery people at risk. And there aren’t as many people and cars on the road.”

三级成人视频Even the self-driving car companies testing and refining their technology in the Silicon Valley area have been forced to halt operations because they are still reliant on people, the backup drivers who supervise the nascent algorithms which drive the cars.

Both Google spin-off Waymo and startup Zoox announced they would be ceasing testing in Mountain View and San Francisco, an activity which involves human safety drivers. 

三级成人视频But in a small glimmer of what’s to come, Waymo said it would continue to operate the small number of fully autonomous cars it has in Phoenix, Arizona. If more pandemics are in our future, we might be more grateful for the robots than we realise.