COLLABORATION

Robot invasion: The delivery bot collaboration taking over university campuses

SOURCE: Starship Technologies

Go back just twenty years and many of our childhood ideas of the “future” will have included flying cars, food in pill form, and robots zipping around doing our chores and running errands.

While the flying cars are still a work-in-progress, when it comes to the robots, the future is now.

The autonomous delivery robot business is booming with the market projected to grow at an annual rate of 19.15 percent between 2018–2024. From a market size of US$11.9 billion in 2018, it’s expected to hit a hefty 3US$34 billion by the end of that period. While that’s not far off, some analysts anticipate by then thousands of drones and rovers will regularly ferry food, drink, toiletries, and parcels on command to customers miles away.

Amazon is making significant progress in turning this into reality, promising in June this year that drone delivery was “within months.” And in early August they requested approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to allow this to happen.

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It is this boon in retail robots that allowed North America to dominate the delivery robots market in 2018. But there is another key sector which is driving growth on the continent.

Apart from the retail industry, delivery robots have also been adopted for delivering food items and beverages to university and corporate campuses specifically in the US.

The restrictions Amazon is currently trying to get around in regards to flying drones create a growth opportunity for autonomous six-wheel delivery robots that are not subject to such limitations.

Six-wheelers also offer the benefit of stability and safety, being designed to run on different types of terrain and retina their balance. Those with all-wheel drive capability allow the robot to handle the toughest and steepest hills with an ability to drive 20 miles in a single charge.

While there’s still a little wait until your latest purchase is taking to the skies, one company is expanding its six-wheeled delivery robots across the world – and has recognised universities as ideal partners.

Starship Technologies invented the category of rolling autonomous sidewalk delivery robots, and to date, the company has made more than 100,000 commercial deliveries on behalf of customers.

The San Francisco based company has just been awarded US$40 million in Series A funding and plan to use that money to expand its scope on university campuses across America.

It’s no secret that students are a fan of delivery services, they are the generation in which a click of a button can have any manner of items delivered to your front door, often within hours. They have come to rely on their mobile phones as the go-to source for purchases, whether that be food, books, or clothing.

Pair this with the abundance of clear walkways, well-defined boundaries and user-friendly nature of most US college campuses and you have the perfect environment for Starship’s leading service.

After the success of its pilot university deployment in June 2018, the company now has plans to expand to 100 university campuses over the next two years.

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“This new investment will see Starship expand onto more campuses as we head towards a goal of offering our service to over one million students,” said Lex Bayer, CEO of Starship Technologies.

“An entire generation of university students are growing up in a world where they expect to receive a delivery from a robot after a few taps on their smartphone. The reception to our service both on campuses and in neighborhoods has been phenomenal. Our customers appreciate how we make their lives easier and give them back the gift of time.”

The company is working closely with the administrations of each college where it intends to launch. It is already operating at George Mason University (GMU) and Northern Arizona University, but first of the new expansion will be the University of Pittsburgh. Food service management company Sodexo will help with the deployment, set for autumn.

Purdue University in Indiana will follow shortly after, launching on September 9.

Starship plans to deploy 25–50 robots at each campus over the next 24 months, which means there could be up to 5,000 robots moving around these campuses by 2021.

delivery robots
The delivery robots use a combination of sophisticated sensors, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to travel on sidewalks and navigate around any obstacles. Source: Starship Technologies

The robots are utilised through the Starship Deliveries app which allows students to choose from a range of food and drink items and select a precise delivery destination. Once the robot arrives, customers use the same app to unlock it and retrieve their goodies.

According to Startship, how they work is through a “combination of sophisticated sensors, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to travel on sidewalks and navigate around any obstacles.”

The company claims their delivery robots can cross streets, climb curbs, travel at night and operate in both rain and snow. They are also battery powered, reduce pollution and congestion by removing cars and vans from the delivery process.

The initial launch has proven incredibly successful, with students taking advantage of the ease and convenience of the system.

In the first days after a fleet of 25 delivery robots descended on GMU’s campus in January, school officials could only speculate about the machines’ long-term impact.

After just a couple of months, the data showed a dramatic shift in students’ eating habits. In the first two months alone, an extra 1,500 breakfast orders were delivered autonomously. The company credited itself with “bringing breakfast back.”

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“Research has shown that up to 88 percent of college students skip breakfast, primarily because of lack of time, but that number is starting to turn around when delivery robots arrive on campus,” Starship Technologies said in a March press release.

“This follows a similar pattern seen at corporate campuses where delivery robots were added.”

During the first day of deliveries at GMU, the machines were flooded by so many dinner orders that school officials had to pull the plug, shutting off orders so that robots weren’t operating late into the night, far behind schedule.

One student said he has used the delivery bots over a hundred times and was impressed with how time-saving the service is.

“It’s really saved me so much time and reduced my stress, especially around finals. I love getting food delivered by a robot, it just makes life so much easier,” said Kevin House.

And he’s not the only one enjoying Starship delivery. The company has now delivered over 6,000 pizzas, 7,000 gallons of milk, 8,000 coffees, 9,000 sushi rolls, 15,000 bananas as well as over 3,700 diapers, since going into operation.

With their latest expansion, this only looks set to grow.