Posted by DEE-ANN DURBIN | Associated Press
ANN ARBOR, Michigan – Robotic food delivery is no longer the subject of science fiction. But you may not see it in the near future.
Hundreds of small robots – knee-deep and capable of holding about four large pizzas – are now roaming college campuses and even the sidewalks of some cities in the US, UK and other countries. While robots were tested in limited numbers before the coronavirus hit, companies that make them say pandemic-related labor shortages and a growing preference for contactless delivery has accelerated their rollout.
“We saw the demand for robots going off the charts,” said Alastair Westgart, CEO of Starship Technologies, which recently completed its $ 2 million shipment. “I think there has always been demand, but it was driven by the pandemic effect.”
Starship has over 1,000 robots, up from 250 in 2019. Hundreds more will be deployed soon. They deliver food to 20 US campuses; Another 25 will be added soon. They also work on sidewalks in Milton Keynes, England; Modesto, California; and the hometown of the company Tallinn, Estonia.
Robot designs vary; for example, some have four wheels and some have six. But they typically use cameras, sensors, GPS and sometimes laser scanners to autonomously navigate sidewalks and even street crossings. They move at a speed of 5 miles per hour.
Remote operators monitor multiple robots at the same time, but they say they rarely need to apply the brakes or avoid obstacles. When the robot arrives at its destination, customers enter a code into their phones to open the lid and collect their food.
Robots have drawbacks that limit their usefulness so far. They are electrical and must be recharged regularly. They are slow and usually stay within a small predetermined radius.
They are also inflexible. For example, a customer cannot tell a robot to leave food outside the door. And some big cities with crowded sidewalks like New York, Beijing and San Francisco don’t welcome them.
But Bill Ray, an analyst at consulting firm Gartner, says robots make a lot of sense on corporate campuses or university campuses or in new communities with wide sidewalks.
“Wherever you can deploy it, the delivery of robots will grow very quickly,” Ray said.
Ray said there have been few reports of problems with the robots, other than the occasional gaggle of children surrounding one and trying to confuse him. Starship briefly suspended operations at the University of Pittsburgh in 2019 after a wheelchair user said a robot had blocked her access to a ramp. But the university said shipments would resume once Starship resolves the issue.
Patrick Scheck, a junior student at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, receives delivery from the Starship robot three or four times a week as it leaves class.
“The robot is coming up to me to have lunch,” Sheck said. Bowling Green and Starship charge $ 1.99 plus service fee for each robot delivery.
Rival Kiwibot, which is headquartered in Los Angeles and Medellin, Colombia, says it now has 400 robots that deliver goods to college campuses and downtown Miami.
Delivery companies are also entering the market. Grubhub recently partnered with Russian robot manufacturer Yandex to deploy 50 robots on the Ohio State University campus in Columbus, Ohio. Grubhub plans to add more campuses soon, although the company emphasizes that the service will not extend beyond colleges for now.
US shipping orders for the year ended June jumped 66%, according to analyst and consulting firm NPD. And demand for shipping may remain elevated even after the pandemic has eased, because customers have become accustomed to convenience.
Ji Hye Kim, chef and managing partner of Miss Kim restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, relied heavily on robot delivery when her cafeteria closed last year. Shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic, Kim partnered with a local robot company, Refraction AI.
Kim prefers robots to third-party delivery companies like DoorDash, which charge significantly more and sometimes cancel orders if they don’t have enough drivers. Delivery companies also group multiple orders per trip, she said, so food sometimes comes cold. The robots only accept one order at a time.
Kim said robots also attract customers, who often post videos of their interactions.
“It’s very cute and new, and you don’t have to face people. It was consolation, ”Kim said. Demand for delivery dropped after her cafeteria reopened, but robots still deliver about 10 orders a day.
While Kim has managed to support her employees throughout the pandemic, other restaurants are struggling to find workers. In a recent poll, 75% of U.S. restaurant owners told the National Restaurant Association that recruiting and retaining employees is their biggest challenge.
Many restaurants are looking to fill the void with robots.
“There is currently no store in the country with enough delivery drivers,” said Dennis Maloney, senior vice president and chief digital officer at Domino’s Pizza.
Domino’s has partnered with Nuro, a California-based startup whose 6-foot-tall self-contained containers reach a top speed of 25 mph on streets rather than sidewalks. Nuro is testing food and grocery delivery in Houston, Phoenix and Mountain View, California.
Maloney said the question is not whether they will start, but when the robots will start making more deliveries. He believes that companies like Domino’s will end up using a combination of robots and drivers based on location. Sidewalk robots can work, for example, at a military base, and Nuro is ideal for suburbs. Highway driving will be left to the discretion of human workers.
Maloney said shipping the Nuro is currently more expensive than using human drivers, but as the technology expands and becomes more sophisticated, the costs will come down.
For cheaper sidewalk robots __, which are estimated to cost $ 5,000 or less __, it is even easier to reduce the human-related shipping costs. According to job site Indeed.com, the average Grubhub driver in Ohio makes $ 47,650 a year.
But robots don’t always have shipping costs. In some cases, they help create them. Before the Starship robots came along, Bowling Green did not offer delivery from campus cafeterias. Since then, the company has hired more than 30 people to act as runners between kitchens and robots, said Bowling Green restaurant spokesman John Zachrich.
Brendan The Witcher, a technology analyst at the consulting firm Forrester, says the ability to deliver robots like the Jetsons is easy to inspire. Ultimately, however, robots will have to prove that they create an advantage in some way.
“Maybe we’ll see it grow into something else,” he said. “But now is the right time and place for companies looking at robots to test them, learn from them, and do their own evaluations.”
AP Video journalist Mike Householder contributed from Bowling Green, Ohio.