ANN ARBOR, Michigan – Robotic food delivery is no longer the stuff of science fiction. But you may not see it around you anytime soon.
Hundreds of tiny robots __ knee high and able to hold about four large pizzas __ now navigate college campuses and even some sidewalks in the US, UK, and elsewhere. While robots were tested in limited numbers prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the companies who build them have accelerated their deployment due to pandemic labor shortages and a growing preference for contactless delivery.
“We saw that the demand for robots just exceeded the ceiling,” said Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Starship Technologies, which recently completed its two millionth shipment. “I think the demand was always there, but the pandemic effect brought it forward.”
Starship has more than 1,000 robots in its fleet, up from just 250 in 2019. Hundreds more will be deployed soon. They deliver food to 20 US campuses; 25 more will be added shortly. They also operate on sidewalks in Milton Keynes, England; Modesto, California; and the company’s hometown, Tallinn, Estonia.
Robot designs vary; for example, some have four wheels and some have six. But usually they use cameras, sensors, GPS and sometimes laser scanners to navigate sidewalks and even cross streets autonomously. You’re moving 5 miles an hour.
Remote operators monitor multiple robots at the same time, but they say they rarely have to hit the brakes or steer around an obstacle. When a robot arrives at its destination, customers enter a code into their phone to open the lid and take out their food.
The robots have disadvantages that limit their usefulness for the time being. They are electric and therefore need to be charged regularly. They are slow and generally stay within a small, pre-mapped radius.
They are also inflexible. For example, a customer cannot tell a robot to leave the food at the door. And some big cities with crowded sidewalks like New York, Beijing, and San Francisco don’t welcome them.
However, Bill Ray, an analyst at consulting firm Gartner, says the robots make a lot of sense on corporate or university campuses, or in newer communities with wide sidewalks.
“Robot deployment will grow very quickly in the places where you can use it,” said Ray.
Ray said there have been few reports of problems with the robots, apart from the occasional crowd of children surrounding you and trying to confuse you. Starship temporarily suspended service at the University of Pittsburgh in 2019 after a wheelchair user said a robot blocked their access to a ramp. But the university said shipments resumed as soon as Starship raised the issue.
Patrick Sheck, a junior at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, gets deliveries from a Starship robot three or four times a week when it leaves class.
“The robot drives up just in time for me to have lunch,” said Sheck. Bowling Green and Starship charge $ 1.99 plus a service fee for each robot delivery.
Rival Kiwibot, headquartered in Los Angeles and Medellin, Columbia, says it now has 400 robots making deliveries on college campuses and in downtown Miami.
Delivery companies are also entering the market. Grubhub recently partnered with Russian robot maker Yandex to deploy 50 robots on the Ohio State University campus in Columbus, Ohio. Grubhub plans to add more campuses soon, though the company stresses that the service won’t extend beyond colleges for now.
U.S. delivery orders rose 66% for the year ended June, according to NPD, a data and consulting firm. And demand for delivery could remain elevated even after the pandemic subsides, as customers get used to the convenience.
Ji Hye Kim, cook and managing director of Miss Kim Restaurant in Ann Arbor, Mich., Relied heavily on robotic deliveries when her dining room closed last year. Kim had teamed up with a local robot company, Refraction AI, shortly before the pandemic began.
Kim prefers robots over third-party providers like DoorDash, which charge significantly more and sometimes cancel orders if they don’t have enough drivers. Delivery companies also bundle several orders per trip, so that the food sometimes arrives cold. Robots only take one order at a time.
Kim said the robots also delight customers, who often post videos of their interactions.
“It’s very cute and novel, and it didn’t have to be face to face with people. It was a consolation, ”said Kim. Demand for delivery has dropped since their dining room reopened, but robots are still delivering around 10 orders a day.
While Kim has managed to hold onto her staff during the pandemic, other restaurants are struggling to find workers. In a recent survey, 75% of US restaurant owners told the National Restaurant Association that their greatest challenge was recruiting and retaining employees.
That has led many restaurants to fill the void with robotic deliveries.
“There is no business in the country with enough delivery drivers right now,” said Dennis Maloney, senior vice president and chief digital officer at Domino’s Pizza.
Domino’s is partnering with Nuro, a California startup whose 6-foot-tall self-propelled pods travel on roads rather than sidewalks at a top speed of 25 mph. Nuro is testing grocery deliveries and grocery deliveries in Houston, Phoenix, and Mountain View, California.
Maloney said it is not a question of if, but when robots will make more deliveries. He believes companies like Domino’s will at some point use a mix of robots and drivers, depending on their location. Sidewalk robots, for example, could work on a military base, while Nuro is ideal for suburbs. Driving on the freeway would be left to human workers.
Maloney said supplying Nuro is more expensive than using human drivers for the time being, but as the technology scales and refines, the cost will come down.
Cheaper sidewalk robots __ estimated to be $ 5,000 or less __ make it even easier to undercut human delivery costs. According to job site Indeed.com, the average Grubhub operator in Ohio makes $ 47,650 a year.
But robots don’t always cost delivery contracts. In some cases, they help create them. Until the Starship robots arrived, Bowling Green did not offer dining delivery on campus. Since then, more than 30 people have been hired to act as runners between kitchens and robots, said Bowling Green restaurant spokesman Jon Zachrich.
Brendan Witcher, a technology analyst at consulting firm Forrester, says it’s easy to get excited about the Jetsons-like ability to deploy robots. But ultimately, robots have to prove that they are gaining an advantage in some way.
“It is possible that we will see this become something else,” he said. “But it’s the right time and place for companies considering robots to test them, learn from them, and make their own assessment.”
AP video journalist Mike Householder contributed from Bowling Green, Ohio.