They're knee high to the average adult and trundle along pavements at four miles an hour, transporting goods to our doors seemingly without human assistance. When they're spotted out and about, people take photos and eagerly post them on social media, thrilled at having witnessed a technological advance taking place on the streets of their neighbourhood. "Hey, why are we not talking about how adorable [this] robot is?" asked one Londoner on Twitter. Another described the pint-sized delivery pod as "bare cute", like "Wall-E", after it turned up with her food order from takeaway delivery firm Just Eat. But not everyone is overcome with such affection; there's been the odd report of these robots being vandalised, while others question their presence on pedestrian walkways, and muse whether they're "coming for our jobs".
The truth is that e-commerce is growing at a significant rate, and the problem of delivering everything we order online is becoming ever trickier. Drones are frequently cited as the future of home delivery, but airborne solutions to this problem are fraught with legal complexity. By the time the American Federal Aviation Authority approved one of Amazon's drones back in 2015, the company admitted that the technology had already become obsolete. In the meantime, putting more cars and vans on the road is inefficient and costly, and as we generally aren't charged the real cost of those deliveries, businesses end up having to absorb it. Little wonder, then, that they're seeking to innovate. Starship Technologies have been quietly trialling their delivery robots on the streets of major cities for nearly a year and a half, in collaboration with take-away food services, supermarkets and parcel delivery firms. Social acceptance, however, is crucial. Many of us might eagerly embrace all kinds of technology within our own homes, but when robots become part of city life, the battle for hearts and minds can be harder to win.
"A huge amount of research went into the human interaction and response to our robot," says Starship's Henry Harris-Burland. "The word 'robot' doesn't always have positive connotations, but we've seen children trying to stroke them as if they're pets, or trying to feed them bananas! Establishing an emotional connection is incredibly important to their success."
There is an R2D2-like cuteness to the robots being built not just by Starship, but also by competitors such as the United States-based company Dispatch. Starship's robot is 55 centimetre tall, 70cm long and weighs just under 20 kilograms unladen; it has 9 cameras, 6 wheels and can deliver a 10kg load within a 3 mile radius. "When we launch in a new area," says Harris-Burland, "we have robot handlers accompanying them on the streets, a bit like a parent supervising a child. They hand out cards to the public to introduce them to the technology, but we've found that the vast majority of people acknowledge the robot and just get on with their day." If robots in public spaces are to do their job properly, they need to blend in seamlessly with their surroundings, but technology is never infallible and critics are quick to pounce when robots screw up. It wouldn't make the news if a member of the public fell into a pond, but when a security robot in Washington DC ended up falling down some steps into a fountain back in July, the poor thing became the laughing stock of the internet. Improvements are constantly being made in the field, however, to reduce that fallibility to somewhere approaching zero.
Last month, Panasonic tested a new 3-D Lidar (Light Imaging Detection and Ranging) system which can detect in great detail the roughness of the surface that a robot is moving across. But there's also a need to address the manner in which they move. Ford recently funded a robotic research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, which was focused on "socially aware" movement of robots. Pedestrians can move unpredictably, and robots can often be too cautious or too aggressive; and this research aimed to "leave people around the robot feeling comfortable in its presence" by using machine learning techniques to teach it the norms of human movement and the unspoken social codes that allow us to walk past and around each other with ease.
These are the kind of developments that will, robotics firms hope, lead us to accept delivery robots as part of a city's furniture. "They're here to help," says Harris-Burland, "and it's important that people perceive that." Perhaps having seen how technology such as Google's spectacles (Google Glass) failed the "social acceptability" test, firms are taking special care not to make similar blunders. Remote human supervisors monitor the movement of Starship robots to make sure nothing untoward is occurring; the machines are also equipped with two-way radios in case people suddenly need human intervention when they realise that the robot can't actually talk back. In the US, Ford and Domino's recently partnered in the Ann Arbor area of Michigan to trial pizza delivery using autonomous vehicles, but again, the focus wasn't on whether the vehicles could navigate to their destination effectively (which seems to be taken for granted) but on how the recipients felt about it all. It was termed an "ethnographic research project" that was more about us than the robots. Put simply: would a driverless vehicle rolling up with a pizza completely freak us out?
On the surface of it, the arrival of delivery robots has represented a relatively small change in our lives that has raised eyebrows, prompted tweets and, in extreme circumstances, perhaps resulted in the odd complaint asking for such services to be fulfilled by human hands in the future. But as our need for delivery services builds year on year, it's unrealistic to expect the personal touch for the kind of price we're prepared to pay for delivery.
As a result, our urban environment looks set to be reshaped as these little vehicles pass us on our way to work, negotiating kerbs, pushchairs and commuters running for trains. Robots may be the most cost-effective way of getting us the things we need; the question is, will we make them feel welcome?