Canadian Manufacturing

Robots begin food deliveries in cities across the U.S.

Grubhub recently partnered with Russian robot maker Yandex to deploy 50 robots on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

November 2, 2021  by Associated Press

Robot food delivery is no longer the stuff of science fiction. But you may not see it in your neighborhood anytime soon.

Hundreds of little robots — knee-high and able to hold around four large pizzas — are now navigating college campuses and even some city sidewalks in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere. While robots were being tested in limited numbers before the coronavirus hit, the companies building them say pandemic-related labor shortages and a growing preference for contactless delivery have accelerated their deployment.

“We saw demand for robot usage just go through the ceiling,” said Alastair Westgarth, the CEO of Starship Technologies, which recently completed its 2 millionth delivery. “I think demand was always there, but it was brought forward by the pandemic effect.”

Starship has more than 1,000 robots in its fleet, up from just 250 in 2019. Hundreds more will be deployed soon. They’re delivering food on 20 U.S. campuses; 25 more will be added soon. They’re also operating on sidewalks in Milton Keynes, England; Modesto, California; and the company’s hometown of Tallin, Estonia.

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Robot designs vary; some have four wheels and some have six, for example. But generally, they use cameras, sensors, GPS and sometimes laser scanners to navigate sidewalks and even cross streets autonomously. They move around 5 mph.

Remote operators keep tabs on multiple robots at a time but they say they rarely need to hit the brakes or steer around an obstacle. When a robot arrives at its destination, customers type a code into their phones to open the lid and retrieve their food.

The robots have drawbacks that limit their usefulness for now. They’re electric, so they must recharge regularly. They’re slow, and they generally stay within a small, pre-mapped radius.

They’re also inflexible. A customer can’t tell a robot to leave the food outside the door, for example. And some big cities with crowded sidewalks, like New York, Beijing and San Francisco, aren’t welcoming them.

Delivery companies are jumping into the market. Grubhub recently partnered with Russian robot maker Yandex to deploy 50 robots on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Grubhub plans to add more campuses soon, although the company stresses that the service won’t go beyond colleges for now.

Robots don’t always cost delivery jobs. In some cases, they help create them. Before Starship’s robots arrived, Bowling Green didn’t offer delivery from campus dining spots. Since then, it has hired more than 30 people to serve as runners between kitchens and robots, Bowling Green dining spokesman Jon Zachrich said.