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What are Co-op delivery robots and how do they work?

Manchester UK  07.07.2023 - starship grocery badger robots within the Coop sales network
The Co-op robots are available to deliver groceries in a number of UK areas. (Getty Images)

It was an image that could have been lifted from a post-apocalyptic movie.

A picture of two robots appearing to square off was widely shared on social media in the past few days. The fact that the two machines faced each other at a pedestrian crossing in Cambridge didn't matter - this was firm evidence that artificial intelligence (AI) had gone too far.

The two-wheeled robots were merely passing each other while performing that most mundane yet vital of tasks: delivering groceries.

Meet the Co-op delivery robots, used by the supermarket giant to bring items across a growing number of areas in the UK.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 15: A Starship Technologies robotic vehicle delivers groceries to Co-op customers on March 15, 2023 in Manchester, England. The Co-op has been working with Starship Technologies to develop robots for local home delivery orders. The robots, small white packing cases on six wheels, use sensors and 12 cameras to enable them to navigate. They travel at walking speed, around 4mph, and their advanced technology enables them to manoeuvre around objects and people and wait until it is safe to cross the road. To deter thieves the little robot has a loud alarm which sounds if tampered with plus they are too heavy to pick up. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
The Co-op delivery robots travel at the same speed as a pedestrian. (Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 15: Starship Technologies robotic vehicles park outside a Co-op supermarket on March 15, 2023 in Manchester, England. The Co-op has been working with Starship Technologies to develop robots for local home delivery orders. The robots, small white packing cases on six wheels, use sensors and 12 cameras to enable them to navigate. They travel at walking speed, around 4mph, and their advanced technology enables them to manoeuvre around objects and people and wait until it is safe to cross the road. To deter thieves the little robot has a loud alarm which sounds if tampered with plus they are too heavy to pick up. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Co-op delivery robots outside a supermarket in Manchester, England. (Getty Images)

Yahoo News UK looks at how the robots carry out their job of delivering shopping to customers.

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What are the Co-op robots?

The robots used by the Co-op were developed by Starship Technologies, an Estonian tech company with headquarters in San Francisco that specialises in autonomous delivery vehicles.

How do they work?

The robots are powered by batteries and travel at the same speed as pedestrians. The Co-op says the robots use "a combination of sensors, artificial intelligence and machine learning to travel on pavements and navigate around any obstacles".

TOPSHOT - Sheila, 71, picks up a delivery from an autonomous robot called Starship delivering groceries from a nearby Co-op supermarket in Milton Keynes, England on September 20, 2021. - In a residential area in the English town of Milton Keynes small robots encased in elegant white containers roll past each other with an air of indifference, delivering shopping and meals. - To go with AFP story by Olivier DEVOS (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) / To go with AFP story by Olivier DEVOS (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)
A customer picks up a delivery from an autonomous Co-op robot in Milton Keynes. (AFP via Getty Images)

They have "computer vision-based navigation" which helps them "map their environment to the nearest inch", the supermarket says. The idea is that the robots are kinder to the environment and reduce traffic congestion.

How do customers order a robot shop?

For a home delivery via robot, customers can download the Starship app and order their groceries, with delivery fees starting from 99p.

The staff at their local Co-op shop will then load the robot and it will travel from the store to the customer's home.

A Starship delivery robot outside the Co-op in Milton Keynes.
A Starship delivery robot outside a Co-op in Milton Keynes. (Getty Images)

Starship says the average delivery consumes the same amount of energy it takes to boil a kettle to make just one cup of tea. Co-op says the most popular items delivered by their robots are milk, eggs and bread. The robots even have their own names, such as Sir Lance-a-bot, Gizmo and Sunshine.

Where are the Co-op robots being used?

Co-op started trialling the delivery robots in Milton Keynes in 2018 and demand soon intensified during the COVID pandemic. In March 2020, the robot operation expanded into central Milton Keynes, and then later launched in its second UK destination, Northampton.

A fleet of Co-op delivery robots. (Starship Technologies)
A fleet of Co-op delivery robots. (Starship Technologies)

The robots are now also available in Bedford, Cambourne, Cambridge, Leeds, Rushden, Trafford, Wakefield and Wellingborough.

Starship Technologies told Yahoo News UK that several hundred robots are in use in the UK, serving hundreds of thousands of customers.