Food delivery robots are small, autonomous machines that carry meals to a delivery point. A typical robot costs between $2,500 and $5,000, depending on the amenities. Consumers pay a delivery charge of about $2 per meal.
How do you hail a food delivery robot? At Embry-Riddle, students will download the Starship Deliveries app, choose from a range of their favorite food and drink items, then drop a pin where they want their meal sent. They can then follow their delivery on an interactive map.
When the food is sent out for delivery they receive an alert and can then meet the robot and unlock it using the app. The delivery usually takes just a few minutes. Each robot can carry up to 20 pounds – the equivalent of about three shopping bags of goods. The robots have their own rules that allow them to coexist peacefully with the students.
Food delivery robots are on the verge of a revolution for several reasons. First, there's the immediate safety concern. With several dangerous COVID variants on the horizon, these touchless delivery systems promise to add a layer of safety to food handling.
“The pandemic advanced the use of robotics technology by three to five years," notes David Chen, director of engineering at Orbbec, a company that provides cameras for robots. "Robots used to be a novelty in this sector, but we are seeing them being steadily adopted into mainstream use as a health and safety measure."
But the robots represent the beginning of a new era of delivery beyond food, and beyond college campuses, according to Diego Varela Prada, chief operating officer of KiwiBot.
Delivering food via a robot cuts the cost by 50 percent or more, compared to human delivery, he says. "And campuses are the beginning of food delivery for most people. Students having exposure to robot delivery on a campus setup means they will be much more open to this technology, not just for food delivery but also for other nonfood items — anything that fits inside a robot."
Tammy Estes, chief product officer at hotel technology company Nomadix says robots are gaining traction quickly.
"We are seeing a significant shift to adopt robotics technology, as it’s a great way to continue fulfilling the time-consuming and repetitive task of delivering meal and bar services safely and conveniently," she told me.
Robots aren't a one-size-fits-all solution. I talked to Tommy Leung, who owns a frozen meal delivery business in Hong Kong. He says we're still "far away" from having an automated delivery system that works for everyone.
"At the moment, our delivery costs are around 10 to 12% of sales, which actually turns out to be even higher than what a traditional restaurant business would be paying for rent," he says. His company's solution is to build a network of offline shop locations that work as retail stores and pick-up locations for online orders.
Leah Lizarondo, an entrepreneur in residence at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College, is the founder and CEO of Food Rescue Hero, a technology platform and mobile app. She says food delivery robots show a lot of promise.
"The load capacity of these are limited and suitable for some things," she says. "But if we are thinking of a typical weekly grocery delivery or anything as substantial, robots are not yet there."
Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Starship Technologies, acknowledges there are some limits to robots but says they have broad applications, particularly in the hospitality industry.
"There will still be a need for other forms of delivery," he says. "But we believe that robot delivery will play a major role, particularly in shorter deliveries of a few miles. Most importantly, customers love the quick and convenient service from autonomous robots. Some people have used the Starship service more than 500 times in the last few years."
There's no directory of campus robots that you can consult to find out if you can order a sandwich from R2D2. But many colleges have them, and many more are getting them.
For example, Starship is already providing services to 16 universities across the country, including Bowling Green State University, George Mason University and Bridgewater State University.
KiwiBots are at many universities, including UC Berkeley, Harvard, UC Davis, MIT, and Stanford, as well as other universities in New York and Texas.
They're there, but you might not notice them. These are not flashy sci-fi robots. On a recent visit to UC Berkeley, I saw a KiwiBot zipping around near the library, but it didn't draw attention to itself. From the corner of your eye, it looks more like a skateboard without a rider.
The food delivery robots are slow, reaching a maximum speed of just four miles per hour. But they're ubiquitous. Starship’s bots have made more than 1.6 million deliveries, traveled millions of miles and made more than 80,000 road crossings daily. The robots use a combination of machine learning, artificial intelligence and sensors to navigate their way to hungry students and faculty. They can cross streets, climb curbs, travel at night and operate in rain and snow.
Bottom line: These robots are multiplying.
"Consumers should expect to see more robots on the street, and at their front-doors delivering goods they have ordered online," says Eric McGee, a senior network engineer at TRGDatacenters, a company that provides data center services.
But there's one reason the bots will stick around, says Kevin Kreide, associate vice president for facilities at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
"Food just tastes better when a robot delivers it to your door," he says.