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Trials Begin for Robot Food Delivery

Food delivery by robots is no longer science fiction. However, it is unlikely that you will see it in your area very soon.

Hundreds of little robots knee-high and capable of carrying four big pizzas are now roaming college campuses and even certain metropolitan sidewalks in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries. While robots were being tested in small quantities before the coronavirus, the businesses developing them claim that manpower constraints caused by the epidemic and a rising demand for contactless delivery have hastened their introduction.

“Demand for robot use suddenly went through the roof,” said Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Starship Technologies, which recently delivered its 2 millionth robot. “I believe demand was always there, but the pandemic effect accelerated it.”

The fleet of Starship now contains over 1,000 robots, up from just 250 in 2019. Hundreds more will be deployed in the near future. They now bring food to 20 campuses in the United States, with another 25 to follow soon. They’re also on the streets of Milton Keynes, England; Modesto, California; and Tallin, Estonia, where the firm was founded.

The number of wheels on a robot varies; some have four, while others have six. Cameras, sensors, GPS, and occasionally laser scanners are used to traverse sidewalks and even cross streets independently. They travel at a speed of around 5 miles per hour.

Remote operators maintain track on many robots at once, but say they seldom have to brake or steer around obstacles. Customers enter a code onto their phones to open the lid and get their meal when a robot arrives at its destination.

The robots have flaws that restrict their utility for the time being. Because they are electric, they must be recharged on a regular basis. They’re sluggish, and they tend to stick within a narrow, pre-mapped radius.

They’re also unyielding. A consumer, for example, cannot instruct a robot to leave food outside the door. And some of the world’s most congested cities, such as New York, Beijing, and San Francisco, aren’t inviting them.

However, according to Bill Ray of Gartner, the robots make a lot of sense on corporate or college campuses, as well as in newer towns with large walkways.

“Robot delivery will develop very fast in regions where it can be deployed,” Ray said.

Except for the rare swarm of youngsters who encircle one and attempt to confuse it, Ray said there have been few complaints of difficulties with the robots. In 2019, Starship temporarily suspended operations at the University of Pittsburgh when a wheelchair user claimed that a robot was blocking her access to a ramp. However, the institution stated that deliveries resumed once Starship resolved the problem.

Three or four times a week, when he leaves class, Patrick Sheck, a junior at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, receives delivery from a Starship robot.

Sheck added, “The robot pulls up just in time for me to eat some lunch.” Each robot delivery costs $1.99 plus a service fee at Bowling Green and Starship.

Kiwibot, based in Los Angeles and Medellin, Columbia, claims to have 400 robots delivering packages on college campuses and in downtown Miami.

Delivery services are also entering the market. Grubhub recently teamed up with Yandex, a Russian robot manufacturer, to deploy 50 robots on the Ohio State University campus in Columbus, Ohio. Grubhub intends to expand its campus network in the near future, however the business emphasizes that the service will remain limited to universities for the time being.

According to NPD, a statistics and consulting business, delivery orders in the United States increased by 66% in the year ending in June. Customers have grown accustomed to the convenience of delivery, thus demand may stay high long after the pandemic has passed.

When Ji Hye Kim, chef and managing partner of Miss Kim in Ann Arbor, Michigan, shuttered her dining room last year, she depended primarily on robot delivery. Kim had joined with Refraction AI, a local robot business, soon before the epidemic began.

Kim favors robots over third-party delivery services such as DoorDash, which charge much more and may cancel orders due to a lack of drivers. Food is sometimes delivered cold because delivery businesses bundle numerous orders each trip, she added. Only one order is taken at a time by robots.

Customers are also enthralled by the robots, according to Kim, who frequently upload footage of their interactions on social media.

“It’s quite charming and unusual, and it didn’t have to interact with people in any way. “It felt reassuring,” Kim stated. Although demand for delivery has decreased since her dining room reopened, robots continue to deliver roughly 10 orders each day.

While Kim was able to keep her crew throughout the epidemic, other eateries are having difficulty finding employees. According to a recent poll conducted by the National Restaurant Association, attracting and keeping personnel is the most difficult task for restaurant operators in the United States.

As a result, several restaurants are turning to robot delivery to fill the hole.

“Right now, there aren’t enough delivery drivers in any shop in the country,” said Dennis Maloney, senior vice president and chief digital officer of Domino’s Pizza.

Domino’s has teamed up with Nuro, a California firm whose 6-foot-tall self-driving pods can travel at a top speed of 25 mph on roads rather than sidewalks. In Houston, Phoenix, and Mountain View, California, Nuro is experimenting with grocery and meal delivery.

It’s not a question of if, but when, robots will begin to make more deliveries, according to Maloney. He believes that, depending on the locale, firms like Domino’s will eventually utilize a combination of robots and drivers. Sidewalk robots, for example, may be useful on a military post, whereas Nuro is best suited to the suburbs. Humans would be in charge of highway driving.

Nuro delivery is now more expensive than utilizing human drivers, according to Maloney, but as the technology grows up and becomes more polished, the costs will decrease.

It’s much simpler to beat human delivery costs with cheaper sidewalk robots which cost around $5,000 or less. According to Indeed.com, the typical Grubhub driver in Ohio earns $47,650 per year.

However, robots do not necessarily result in the loss of delivery employment. They even assist in the creation of certain of them. Bowling Green didn’t provide delivery from campus eating establishments before Starship’s robots came. Bowling Green dining spokesperson Jon Zachrich said the company has employed more than 30 workers since then to serve as runners between kitchens and robots.

It’s tempting to get enthusiastic about the Jetsons-like idea of robot delivery, according to Brendan Witcher, a technology analyst with the research company Forrester. But, in the end, robots will have to show that they provide a competitive edge in some way.

“It’s possible that we’ll see something new emerge from this,” he remarked. “However, now is the ideal time and location for businesses contemplating robots to put them to the test, learn from them, and conduct their own review.”

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