Joy to the world – the robots are coming to save Christmas

I can’t think of anywhere in the UK better suited to ground-based delivery drones than Milton Keynes. But I also can’t think of anywhere else in the UK that might be at all suitable. And that, I think, might be a problem.

In just a few weeks, all hell will be let loose in the retail sector. All across Europe, hundreds of millions of deliveries will be made during the end-of-year peak. And, as always, it’s going to create headaches for anyone with the responsibility for ensuring shoppers’ orders are fulfilled on time.

In the UK, Royal Mail is opening six pop-up sorting offices and hiring almost 3,000 people to work in them. In total, it plans to hire 23,000 temporary staff to cope with its busiest period – in 2017 it handled 149 million parcels. Argos is looking for 1,000 new drivers, apparently. If we cast our minds back just four years, there were lots of problems with delivery and fulfillment – Black Friday 2014 caught the public’s attention, but caught retailers out. Shortly afterwards, Yodel – the second largest parcel carrier in the UK (after Royal Mail) revealed it had been given so many parcels by its retail customers, that it would have needed to hire 5,000 additional staff to process them within its usual timeframe.

No one wants to get caught out again.

Too few people? Wheel out the robots!

Whether it’s picking, packing, or driving, there’s a finite number of people willing and available to take on that kind of work. And not all of them will have the right skills, experience, and capability. Finding people to pick up the slack during peak parcel periods is a problem.

Scratch that… it was a problem. But it’s not anymore.

Not for the people of Milton Keynes, anyway. Milton Where..? Milton Keynes – the 51-year-old new town, 72km north-north-west of London. That’s where. Milton Why..? Because a fleet of Starship robot drones is coming to save Christmas. That’s why.

The town of Milton Keynes has a population of approximately 230,000 and stretches across 62.52km of former farmland. Superficially, it might seem like an odd choice of location for what Starship Technologies describes as “a world first” on its website. Accompanying statements like this one: “consumers around the world will never miss a delivery again” (also from the Starship website) struck me as fairly comical, given that the only “consumers around the world” who will “never miss a delivery again” thanks to this announcement are the good people of Milton Keynes.

All 230,000 of them.

There are also plans to launch the service in the “Bay Area, California” by the end of the year. It’s quite likely that’s a reference to San Francisco Bay, but it isn’t made explicitly clear.

The Starship website also says: “The tech company has announced the world’s first commercial rollout of autonomous package delivery on the ground, with hundreds of robots from Starship delivering packages straight to consumers’ front doors.”

No, I don’t know why they’re talking about themselves in the third person either. I also don’t know anyone else developing ground-based drone delivery. But even if there might be others, being first isn’t much of a claim to fame. And as for the “straight to consumers’ front doors” bit… well, maybe. But I’ve yet to see how it’ll handle a multi-occupancy dwelling such as an apartment block.

Where we’re going, we don’t need stairs

But it turns out there are lots of really good reasons why Milton Keynes is the ideal place for the little Starship troopers to deliver parcels. Unlike just about every other town in the UK, and possibly most of Europe, Milton Keynes was built around a grid-style network of roads – like those that are common in the USA. The Milton Keynes grid is brilliant. Roads laid out in grid-systems are easy to navigate and good at easing congestion – a grid offers multiple routes from A to B, meaning the kind of traffic bottleneck you get in most towns don’t occur.

It also has a network of recreational cycling pathways, called redways. This is another brilliant feature. They’re designed for people who want to go for an enjoyable, leisurely cycle ride. Not for those middle-aged men who dress up in lycra outfits and pretend they’re taking part in the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France. Cosplay on wheels… I just don’t get it.

Anyway, I digress.

The redways are set slightly apart from other traffic and crisscross most of the town, making them both safe and convenient. You could easily roll along at a leisurely pace without getting in anyone’s way and without anyone hassling you to hurry up.

But the cherry on top of the cake has to be Milton Keynes’s accessibility credentials. It has wide streets and pedestrian walkways and there are no steps or stairs. Sure there are some stairs, but you can make your way across town without having to use them. It’s the absolute opposite of Edinburgh, for example. Where there are steps and narrow alleyways galore. In fact, it’s the absolute opposite of Edinburgh in a lot of other ways too. But that’s a topic for a different post.

I can’t think of anywhere in the UK better suited to ground-based delivery drones than Milton Keynes. But I also can’t think of anywhere else in the UK that might be at all suitable. And that, I think, might be a problem. If there aren’t many places that are suitable for ground-dwelling delivery bots, in their current state, the rest of the retail logistics world is going to be reliant on people for the foreseeable future.

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