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Delivery droids: friend or foe to cyclists?

New delivery robots in "active service" in Greenwich, could be rolled out across London as early as 2017; but they still need a hand crossing the road...

After decades of SciFi movies predicting it would happen, robots are now becoming a part of modern life; from flying drones delivering parcels, to ones that light our way and, most recently, “pavement droids” bringing us dinner (at least those of us living in a small area of Greenwich).

This month, Just Eat announced it would use semi-automated pavement droids to collect food from restaurants and deliver it to homes within a small area of Greenwich, London, with plans to roll the robots out across the capital next year. The small, six wheeled robots, can reach speeds of up to 4mph, and operate on pavements. They still need a human to help them cross the road, though.

Cyclists who came across one on the Thames Path, near Greenwich, at the weekend, expressed a mixture of bafflement, amusement and concern at sharing space with a small, moving robot. The diminutive machine was filmed by cyclist Paul Ready along the Thames Path in London yesterday.

He said: “I know being a cyclist you feel as if everything is trying to step out in front of you or knock you off your bike, we even have these little robot things. You may not have them where you are but they travel about walking speed and just come out of side paths so you have very little time to avoid them.

He added: “There are a lot in Greenwich at the moment, I just think they could be dangerous, especially when the weather is bad or it is dark. Who knows, maybe they will just be fair weather robots.”

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Starship Technologies, who have designed and manufactured the six-wheel pavement droid, confirmed to the machine in question, a six wheeled “pavement droid” was being tested on the pedestrian portion of the Thames Path – the section of cycle path beside which Ready spotted the droid is currently closed for nearby construction work.

Henry Harris-Burland, of Starship Technologies, explained the droid testing process to, and how the robots, which could be rolled out across London as early as next year, will interact with cyclists. He said this particular robot was “under complete human operation”, driven remotely, while being overseen by a human handler walking alongside it, near to the company’s office.

Generally-speaking, he said, a testing phase for the robots creates “lanes” on pavements, on which the robots operate, and from which they cannot stray. These will exclude cycle paths.

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He said: “We map an area, a neighbourhood, and after we have mapped that neighbourhood the robot will know where it can and can’t go - so it almost creates lanes where it can and can’t operate.”

He said the robots can “navigate and triangulate their locations to the nearest inch” and so once the mapping was complete, they could not turn into a bike lane, and would stop if they encountered one.

On shared use paths, where space between cyclists and pedestrians is not delineated, he said: “slow and steady wins the race.”

He added: “We have a very sophisticated computer vision system, that’s how robots navigate”.

In terms of concerns that robots will suddenly appear out of side streets, he said on a blind corner it acts “just like a pedestrian”.

“This robot is a pedestrian robot, the maximum speed is 4mph, but that is not the average speed. If you think about what a pedestrian would do on a blind corner they would go around very slowly and if they needed to, would stop. That is how the robot acts as well.”

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Cyclist Christopher Reeve spotted the robot, too. He said: “I passed that little fella today. When I overtook it I think I spooked it as it quickly moved over to the grass verge.”

However, cyclist Alex Ingram is less enamoured with them. He said: "Driven by humans over the Internet from Eastern Europe. It's a daft startup who've failed to work out a bike would be more efficient.

"I'm not keen on them either. Suspect most likely is an OAP trips over one."

However, Harris-Burland argued the robots were safe. He said: “We have done over 14,000 miles of testing on the pavements around the area, and we haven’t had an accident or incident yet.”

“We take the safety of cyclists and pedestrians incredibly seriously.”

He said the robots have lights and flags to help them be seen in low light. The company has operators in London, Estonia and San Francisco.

“Visibility is obviously incredibly important to us,” he said. “At the moment we are testing for all of these reasons; the robot has met nearly 2.5 million people on its travels; we have done a lot of visibility testing, some of these things have come up and have been resolved.”

Sophisticated as the robots may be, they cannot yet cross a road by themselves.

“At the moment cars are the most dangerous thing, which is probably the same for cyclists,” said Harris-Burland. “Road crossings are done under human operation at the moment. They will stop at a junction and ping [a message] to a human operator, who will take over.”

He said although the area of Greenwich, extending approximately a mile around a row of restaurants near Greenwich Park, is currently small, the company is looking to expand.

A press release from Just Eat and Starship Technologies, said: “After five months of exhaustive testing in the area, the first live delivery signals the next step in this revolutionary pilot program which will see local Just Eat customers receive automated robot deliveries in Greenwich. There are plans to expand the program across London in 2017.”

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