An employee of an autonomous robot delivery company has been given “additional training” after taking remote manual control of a 35kg bot and ‘charging it into’ a pedestrian, The Grocer can exclusively reveal.
The robot had been delivering Co-op groceries to a customer in Northampton when it drove across the lawn of their neighbour and ran over a cat repellent device, snapping it in two. Seeing the robot in his front garden, Abdul Sottar went to investigate.
“I spoke to it. As foolish as it is talking to a robot, I’m assuming someone can hear me at the other end. I said ‘you’ve just broken my cat sensor – wait here, I’m going to get my camera’,” Sottar said.
When he came back outside with his phone, Sottar said the robot “literally leapt off my lawn, jumped a curb and sped over the other side of the road”.
Seeking to take a picture of an identifying number on the robot, the finance worker said the six-wheeled vehicle “started charging at me, comes at me full speed, going back and forth, trying to run me over”. Sottar – who has degenerative disc disease and had recently had surgery on his spine – stuck his foot out “to protect myself” and “it hit me a couple of times before driving off” he said.
Starship told The Grocer it was “important to emphasise that the robot was travelling very slowly (4mph or less) and that incidents like this are extremely rare”.
The “vast majority” of the time Starship’s robots operate autonomously, a spokesperson for the company said. The robots – which weigh 35kg and can carry up to 10kg of groceries – use a suite of sensors, GPS, AI and computer vision to travel along pavements and “navigate around any obstacles, people or pets”, while mapping their environment “to the nearest inch”.
But the robots can be put into manual mode when required, and controlled remotely by “remote assistants based worldwide”.
“On the few occasions that they are monitored by remote assistants, sometimes minor bumps and scuffs occur,” the Starship spokesperson said. “This sometimes happens, as you can imagine, from very small incidences of human error but these incidences are uncommon.”
The spokesperson said that following the incident “the operator was given additional training” and that training was “paramount at Starship and is offered on a consistent basis”.
“Our robots make tens of thousands of deliveries around the world every single day and the safety of these deliveries is taken very seriously,” they added.
Correspondence between Sottar and Starship seen by The Grocer shows the robot delivery company offered Sottar £50 to replace his cat repellent device.
At Sottar’s request, Starship has set an exclusion zone around his front garden, so the robot knows to avoid driving on to it.
“Machines and AI stay within their parameters. But there needs to be an extra level and layer of safety control when a human takes over,” Sottar said. “And why do you need extra training to know not to run into someone?”
Starship was launched in 2014 by two Skype co-founders, Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, and arrived in the UK in early 2018 offer robot deliveries from two Co-op stores in Milton Keynes, serving the town and surrounding areas. The service has since expanded to Northampton, Manchester, Wakefield, Bedford, Cambourne, Cambridge and Leeds, delivering groceries from several Co-op, Londis, Budgens, Premier, and independent stores.
“We have had considerable positive feedback about how much young people in particular enjoy seeing the robots, who often like to hug them and take photos with them,” Starship said.
More than 2,000 Starship robots are operational globally.
Last year, Starship confirmed it was investigating an incident in which one of its bots reportedly “hit and pushed” a toddler in Milton Keynes. Last December, a Rushden man said he had been “wiped out” by one of the bots. Earlier this year a Tesco delivery driver claimed a Starship robot rammed into his German Shepherd, again in Milton Keynes.
“People see them as cute, and that’s what I thought as well when I first saw them, ‘they’re bringing in the new era of robotics’. But when something like that happens you realise they can be not just a nuisance but actually quite dangerous,” Sottar told The Grocer.
“The force that they come at you with – if it was a toddler it could do some serious damage. I want assurance that my daughter and her friends are safe when out playing on the lawn and outside. You just don’t know,” he added.