Robots hit the streets as demand for food delivery grows

ANN ARBOR -- Robotic food delivery is not just science fiction. It may not be available in your area anytime soon.

Robots hit the streets as demand for food delivery grows

ANN ARBOR -- Robotic food delivery is not just science fiction. It may not be available in your area anytime soon.

Many hundreds of tiny robots, __ about knee-high and capable of holding four large pizzas __ can now navigate college campuses and some city sidewalks across the U.S., U.K. and other countries. Although robots were initially being tested before the coronavirus struck, companies that make them claim that they have been deployed faster due to pandemic-related labor shortages as well as a preference for contactless delivery and growing preferences.

Alastair Westgarth (CEO of Starship Technologies), said that "we saw demand for robotic usage just go through a ceiling." Starship Technologies recently delivered its 2 millionth robot. "I believe demand was always there but was brought forward by pandemic effects."

Starship now has over 1,000 robots in its fleet, compared to just 250 in 2019. Many more robots will soon be added to Starship's fleet. They are currently delivering food to 20 U.S. universities; 25 more will soon follow. They also operate on the streets of Modesto, California, Milton Keynes, England, and Tallin, Estonia.

There are many robot designs. Some have four wheels while others have six. They use sensors, GPS, cameras and laser scanners to navigate streets and sidewalks. They travel at 5 mph.

Remote operators monitor multiple robots at once, but they claim they rarely have to brake or steer around obstacles. Customers can use their phones to enter a code that opens the lid of their robot's container and retrieve their food when it arrives at its destination.

Robots are limited in their utility for now due to some drawbacks. They are electric and must be recharged regularly. They are slow and generally stick to a pre-mapped area.

They are also rigid. For example, a customer cannot tell a robot that it should leave food outside of the door. Some big cities, such as San Francisco, Beijing, and New York, have crowded streets that are hostile to them.

Analyst Bill Ray from Gartner says robots can make sense in colleges and newer communities that have wide sidewalks.

Ray stated that robot delivery will expand rapidly in the areas where it can be deployed.

Ray stated that there have been no reports of robot problems, except for a small group of children who try to confuse one. Starship temporarily halted service at University of Pittsburgh in 2019, after a wheelchair user claimed that a robot had blocked her access to a ramp. The university stated that deliveries were resumed after Starship resolved the problem.

Patrick Sheck is a junior at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio. He receives deliveries from Starship robots three to four times per week when he leaves class.

Sheck stated, "The robot pulls in just in time to me to get lunch." Each robot delivery costs $1.99 at Starship and Bowling Green, plus a $1.99 service fee.

Rival Kiwibot has a headquarters in Los Angeles, and Medellin (Columbia), and now boasts 400 robots that make deliveries to college campuses and downtown Miami.

Delivery companies are also entering the market. Grubhub and Yandex, a Russian robot manufacturer, recently collaborated to deploy 50 robots at Ohio State University's Columbus campus. Grubhub intends to expand its service, but the company insists that it won't be expanding beyond colleges.

According to NPD (a data and consulting company), U.S. delivery orders increased 66% during the year that ended in June. Customers have become accustomed to this convenience, so delivery demand may remain high even after the pandemic ends.

Ji Hye Kim was the chef and managing partner at Miss Kim in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Robot delivery was used heavily when Miss Kim's dining room was closed last January. Kim had joined Refraction AI, a local robot company, shortly before the pandemic.

Kim prefers robots over third-party delivery services like DoorDash. These companies charge significantly more and can cancel orders if there aren't enough drivers. She said that delivery companies often bundle multiple orders per trip so food can sometimes arrive cold. Robots can only take one order at a given time.

Kim stated that robots are also exciting customers who often record videos of their interactions.

It's cute and unique, and didn't need to be face-to-face with people. Kim stated that it was a great comfort. Although delivery demand has declined since Kim's dining room was reopened, robots still deliver approximately 10 orders each day.

Kim was able to keep her staff together during the pandemic. However, many other restaurants are having difficulty finding workers. According to a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association, 75% of U.S. restaurateurs stated that their greatest challenge is recruiting and keeping employees.

Many restaurants are now looking for robot delivery to fill this void.

Dennis Maloney (senior vice president and chief digital officer, Domino's Pizza) stated that "there is no store in the nation right now with enough delivery drivers."

Domino's has partnered with Nuro, an innovative California startup. Nuro's self-driving, 6-foot tall pods can travel at 25 mph on roads, not sidewalks, and Domino's will be their partner. Nuro is currently testing food and grocery delivery in Houston, Phoenix, and Mountain View, California.

Maloney stated that it is not a matter of whether, but when robots will begin to deliver more. According to Maloney, Domino's will eventually employ a combination of drivers and robots depending on where they are located. Sidewalk robots might work at a military base. Nuro, however, is best for suburban areas. Human workers would drive on the highways.

Maloney stated that Nuro delivery is more costly than using human drivers, but the technology will improve and the prices will drop.

It's easier to lower human delivery costs with cheaper sidewalk robots, which are estimated at $5,000 and less. According to Indeed.com, the average Grubhub driver in Ohio earns $47,650 annually.

But robots don't always cost delivery jobs. Sometimes, robots can even help to create new jobs. Bowling Green did not offer delivery to campus dining venues before Starship's robots arrived. Jon Zachrich, a Bowling Green dining spokesperson, said that the company has now hired over 30 people to run between robots and kitchens.

Brendan Witcher, a technology analyst at Forrester says it is easy to get excited by the Jetsons-like possibility for robot delivery. Robots will need to show they have an advantage in some way.

He said, "It's possible we see this emerge as something else." "But companies looking into robots should test them, learn from them, and then make their own assessments."

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