Robots take to streets as demand for food delivery increases

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) – Robot food delivery is no longer science fiction. But you might not see it in your neighborhood any time soon.

Hundreds of small robots __ at knee height and capable of holding about four large pizzas __ now roam college campuses and even some city sidewalks in the US, UK and elsewhere. While robots were tested in limited numbers before the coronavirus hit, the companies that build them say workforce shortages linked to the pandemic and a growing preference for contactless delivery have accelerated their deployment.

“We have seen the demand for the use of robots cross the ceiling,” said Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Starship Technologies, which recently completed its 2 millionth delivery. “I think the demand has always been 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 deliver food to 20 US campuses; 25 more will be added soon. They also operate on the sidewalks of Milton Keynes, England; Modesto, California; and the company’s hometown, Tallinn, Estonia.

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 independently. They travel at around 5 mph.

Remote operators monitor multiple robots at once, but say they rarely need to brake or go around an obstacle. When a robot arrives at its destination, customers type a code into their phone to open the lid and collect their food.

Robots have drawbacks that limit their usefulness for now. They are electric, so they need to be recharged regularly. They are slow and usually stay within a small pre-mapped radius.

They are also inflexible. A customer can’t tell a robot to leave food in front of the door, for example. And some big cities with crowded sidewalks, like New York, Beijing and San Francisco, don’t welcome them.

But Bill Ray, an analyst with consulting firm Gartner, says robots make a lot of sense on corporate or college campuses, or in new communities with wide sidewalks.

“In places where you can deploy it, robot delivery will increase very quickly,” Ray said.

Ray said there had been few reports of problems with the robots, other than an occasional group of children circling one and trying to confuse him. Starship briefly interrupted service at the University of Pittsburgh in 2019 after a wheelchair user said a robot blocked their access to a ramp. But the university said deliveries resumed once Starship resolved the issue.

Patrick Sheck, a junior at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, receives deliveries from a Starship robot three or four times a week as he leaves the classroom.

“The robot arrives just in time for me to have lunch,” Sheck said. Bowling Green and Starship charge $ 1.99 plus a service fee for each robot delivery.

Rival Kiwibot, headquartered in Los Angeles and Medellin, Colombia, says it now has 400 robots making deliveries to college campuses and downtown Miami.

Delivery companies are also entering 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 at this time.

Delivery orders in the United States jumped 66% in the year ending June, according to NPD, a data and consulting company. And delivery demand could remain high even after the pandemic has slowed, as customers have grown accustomed to the convenience.

Ji Hye Kim, chef and managing partner of Miss Kim restaurant in Ann Arbor, Mich., Relied heavily on robot delivery when her dining room was closed last year. Kim had partnered with a local robot company, Refraction AI, shortly before the start of the pandemic.

Kim prefers bots over third-party delivery companies like DoorDash, which charge a lot more and sometimes cancel orders if they don’t have enough drivers. Delivery companies also bundle multiple orders per trip, she said, so the food sometimes arrives cold. Robots only take one command at a time.

Kim said bots also excite customers, who often post videos of their interactions.

“It’s very cute and new, and he didn’t have to come face to face with people. It was a comfort, ”Kim said. Delivery demand has dropped since its dining room reopened, but robots still deliver around 10 orders per day.

While Kim has managed to hang on to her staff throughout the pandemic, other restaurants are struggling to find workers. In a recent survey, 75% of American restaurateurs told the National Restaurant Association that recruiting and retaining employees is their biggest challenge.

This has many restaurants looking to fill the void with robotic delivery.

“There are currently no stores in the country with enough delivery drivers,” said Dennis Maloney, senior vice president and chief digital officer at Domino’s Pizza.

Domino’s is teaming up with Nuro, a California startup whose 6-foot-tall self-contained pods go at speeds of up to 25 mph on the streets, not sidewalks. Nuro is testing grocery shopping and food delivery in Houston, Phoenix, and Mountain View, California.

Maloney said it’s not about if, but when, the robots will start making more deliveries. He believes companies like Domino’s will eventually use a mix of bots and pilots depending on location. Sidewalk robots could work on a military base, for example, while Nuro is ideal for the suburbs. Highway driving would be left to human workers.

Maloney said delivering Nuro is more expensive than using human drivers at the moment, but as the technology evolves and refines, the costs will come down.

For cheaper sidewalk robots __ that cost around $ 5,000 or less __, it’s even easier to reduce human delivery costs. The average Grubhub driver in Ohio earns $ 47,650 per year, according to the job site Indeed.com.

But robots don’t always cost the delivery jobs. In some cases, they help create them. Before the Starship robots arrived, Bowling Green did not offer delivery from campus restaurants. Since then, he’s hired more than 30 people to serve as runners between the kitchens and the robots, Bowling Green spokesperson Jon Zachrich said.

Brendan Witcher, technology analyst for consulting firm Forrester, says it’s easy to get excited about the possibility of delivering robots to the Jetsons. But at the end of the day, the bots will have to prove that they are creating an advantage in one way or another.

“We may see that emerge in something else,” he said. “But now is the right time and place for companies considering bots to test them, learn from them, and do their own assessment. “

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AP video reporter Mike Householder contributed from Bowling Green, Ohio.


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