Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP) — Robotic food delivery is no longer the stuff of science fiction. But you might not see it in your neighborhood anytime soon.
Hundreds of tiny robots __ knee-high and capable of holding nearly four large pizzas __ are now navigating college campuses and even some city sidewalks in the US, UK and elsewhere. While a limited number of robots were being tested before the coronavirus hit, the companies that make them say labor shortages related to the pandemic and a growing preference for contactless delivery have accelerated their deployment.
Alistair Westgarth, CEO of Starship Technologies, recently completed its two millionth delivery, “We saw the demand for the use of robots just go through the ceiling.” “I think there was always demand, but it was brought forward by the impact of the pandemic.”
Starship has over 1,000 robots in its fleet, up from just over 250 in 2019. Hundreds more will be deployed soon. They are delivering food to 20 US campuses; 25 more will be added soon. They are also working on the sidewalks in Milton Keynes, England; Modesto, California; and the company’s hometown of Tallinn, Estonia.
Robot designs vary; For example, some have four wheels and some have six. But generally, they use cameras, sensors, GPS and sometimes laser scanners to navigate pavement and even cross roads autonomously. They run at about 5 mph.
Remote operators monitor multiple robots at a time, but they say they rarely need to hit the brakes or cross an obstacle. When a robot arrives at its destination, customers type a code into their phones to open the lid and retrieve their food.
Robots have drawbacks that limit their usefulness for now. They are electric, so they must be recharged regularly. They are slow, and they generally stay within a small, pre-mapped radius.
They are also inflexible. For example, a customer cannot ask the robot to leave the food outside the door. And some big cities with overcrowded sidewalks, such as New York, Beijing and San Francisco, are not welcoming them.
But Bill Ray, an analyst at consulting firm Gartner, says robots make a lot of sense on corporate or college campuses, or in newer communities with wider sidewalks.
“In places where you can deploy it, robotic delivery will grow very quickly,” Ray said.
Ray said there have been few reports of problems with the robot, other than an occasional prank of children who surround one and try to confuse it. Starship briefly halted service in 2019 after a wheelchair user at the University of Pittsburgh said a robot had blocked his access to the ramp. But the university said that Starship resumed deliveries after addressing the issue.
Patrick Shek, a junior at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, receives deliveries from Starship Robot three or four times a week while leaving class.
“The robot pulls over in time to make some lunch for me,” Shek said. Bowling Green and Starship each charge $1.99 plus a service fee for robot delivery.
Rival Kiwibot, which is headquartered in Los Angeles and Medellin, Colombia, says it now has 400 robots on college campuses and downtown Miami making deliveries.
Delivery companies are also leaping into the market. Grubhub recently partnered with Russian robot maker Yandex to deploy 50 robots to the Ohio State University campus in Columbus, Ohio. Grubhub plans to add more campuses soon, though the company stresses that the service won’t go beyond colleges just yet.
US delivery orders jumped 66% in the year ending June, according to data and consulting firm NPD. And the demand for delivery may remain high even after the easing of the pandemic as customers get used to the convenience.
Ji Hi Kim, chef and managing partner of Ann Arbor, Michigan, restaurant Miss Kim, relied heavily on robotic delivery when her dining room was closed last year. Shortly before the pandemic began, Kim partnered with a local robot company, Refraction AI.
Kim prefers robots to third-party delivery companies like DoorDash, which charge exorbitant fees and sometimes cancel orders when there aren’t enough drivers. Delivery companies also bundle multiple orders per trip, she said, so food sometimes gets cold. Robots only take one order at a time.
Kim said the robots also excite customers, who often post videos of their conversations.
“It’s so cute and novel, and it doesn’t have to come face-to-face with people. It was a comfort,” said Kim. Demand for delivery has waned since her dining room reopened, but Robots still place about 10 orders per day.
While Kim has managed to hang on to her staff during the pandemic, other restaurants are struggling to find workers. In a recent survey, 75% of American restaurant owners told the National Restaurant Association that recruiting and retaining employees is their biggest challenge.
In this, many restaurants are looking to fill the void with robotic delivery.
“There just isn’t a store in the country with enough delivery drivers,” 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-driving pods can top 25 mph on roads, not pavement. Nuro is testing grocery and food delivery in Houston, Phoenix and Mountain View, California.
Maloney said the question is not whether, but when, robots will start making more deliveries. He thinks companies like Domino’s will eventually use a mix of robots and drivers depending on the location. For example, Sidewalk robots can operate on a military base, while Nuro is ideal for the suburbs. Highway driving would be left to human workers.
Maloney said that for now Nuro delivery is more expensive than using human drivers, but as the technology grows and becomes more sophisticated, the cost will come down.
For cheap sidewalk robots __ estimated to cost $5,000 or less __ human delivery costs are even easier to reduce. According to the job site Indeed.com, the average Grubhub driver in Ohio makes $47,650 per year.
But robots don’t always have to cost the delivery job. In some cases, they help create them. Before the Starship’s robots arrived, Bowling Green did not offer delivery from campus dining spots. Since then, it has hired more than 30 people to serve as the runner between the kitchen and the robot, said John Zacharich, a spokesman for Bowling Green Dining.
It’s easy to get excited about the prospect of a robotic delivery like Jetsons, says Brendan Wicher, a technology analyst at consulting firm Forrester. But eventually, robots have to prove that they create an advantage in some way.
“It’s possible that we see it emerging in something else,” he said. “But this is the right time and place for companies considering robots to test them and learn from them and do their own evaluation.”
AP Video journalist Mike Householder contributed from Bowling Green, Ohio.