Robot food delivery startup picks up NAU as new location

In 1962, The Jetsons all but promised the country we’d have jetpacks, flying cars and robot maids by now. While we’re far away from that level of technology, we’re taking steps to get a little closer with robot delivery pods that can be seen rolling around neighborhoods and college campuses across the country. The beetle-like robots are being wheeled out in testing phases at this point, dropping off packages to willing testers. One of those trial programs is taking place on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff following a successful launch at the campus of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

The company behind the robot delivery is Starship Technologies, a San Francisco-based startup that began literally rolling out its technology a few months ago. The new service at NAU will be the first commercial deployment of sidewalk delivery robots in Arizona.

Hungry students at NAU can begin having their food and drink orders delivered from nearby eateries like Cobrizo Mexican Grill, Turnip the Greens, G’ NY Style Deli, Star Ginger, and other local retailers. The startup has been collaborating with food and facilities management provider Sodexo to test out the new venture.

“NAU is a campus that is perfectly suited to robots. Their sidewalks are wide and they have great open spaces,” says Starship senior vice president of business development Ryan Tuohy. “The NAU campus spans 683 acres and serves +25,000 students, faculty and staff every day. Starship understands that not all students and faculty have the time, or the physical ability, to walk far distances to get lunch.”

Arizona as a whole has been a hotbed for autonomous vehicle testing and robot delivery. In Scottsdale, one Fry’s location tested out a robot grocery delivery service last fall; in Surprise, a Wal-Mart location tried out the same thing; and Waymo has run successful trials throughout the greater Phoenix area.

Deliveries for food at NAU will only cost an additional $1.99 and work in tandem with meal plans bought by the students. Students can use Starship’s mobile app to handle the ordering. They can choose what they want from a menu and tag where they are on a map to have the robot wheel itself over to drop off up to 20 pounds of goods. The delivery pods are password-protected and keep the purchaser abreast of its location.

“Sodexo and the management of NAU understand the benefits of robot delivery and want to introduce the technology to their students and staff. We always want to work with people who embrace new technology,” says Tuohy.

The robots contain six wheels to keep them moving and a bevy of electronic security to keep them safe. Nine cameras and ultrasonic sensors offer up a 360-degree view of their surroundings so if a would-be thief tries pilfering someone’s hot lunch they’ll be easily identified. The pods hit up to 10 miles per hour and have the ability to recharge, cross streets, travel at night, operate through rain and snow, and even climb curbs on their own.

Robot or autonomous vehicle food delivery, once a futuristic idea, is becoming a reality. Domino’s is testing out pizza delivery options for customers who don’t mind their hot and fresh slices delivered by a self-driving car; robot startups Nuro, Robby, Dispatch and Boxbot are also giving it a go. And now, major players like Amazon, FedEx and Postmates are developing their own technologies.

Nick Esquer

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