As college resumes this year, many campuses are once again finding a familiar buzz that was notably absent during the pandemic. Though COVID safety precautions may remain in place, university students will return to dorms and college cafeterias. But unlike before, many students have become accustomed to home delivery services and e-commerce. Affected by the Come-to-Me Economy, they will welcome services that bring items to them. And a few astute autonomous robot startups are prepared to take full advantage of these changes. (Read more about both the Come-to-Me Economy and Come-to-Me Employment in these Bold stories.)
Over the last few years, food delivery robots have appeared in a number of cities and college campuses. As autonomous robot technologies have advanced, startups have launched new programs to pilot their inventions. Based on their success thus far, many plan to expand their outreach, offering services to a higher number of campuses. Other autonomous robot companies are doing the same thing in select cities. Given the many advantages that these services provider, it seems clear that this is indeed the way of the future.
“University campuses provide an advantage as they tend to be a more controlled environment than public streets in regards to things such as public infrastructure complexity and car traffic and congestion.” – Diego Varela Prada, COO at Kiwibot
Testing Food Delivery Robots on College Campuses
When testing an autonomous robot, there are many things to consider. Safety is naturally a priority, but at the same time, so is quality of service. Food delivery robots need to navigate complex settings without doing any harm. Likewise, they must do so while meeting a customer’s expectations. In this regard, college campuses are often ideal environments for pilot testing. They tend to offer a more controlled physical layout, and universities tend to be more open to experimentation. They also provide a high concentration of consumers that have strong economic potential. Each of these features have attracted startups offering food delivery robots.
Leading the field in this area have been Starship Technologies, founded in 2014. While the company employed roughly 200 food delivery robots in 2020, this figure quadrupled during the pandemic. The company now has over 1.5 million campus deliveries under its belt. At the same time, Kiwibot hopes to compete with Starship Technologies with its own autonomous robot services. It recently partnered with Sodexo food services, which manages hundreds of college cafeterias and dining halls across the nation. Kiwibot has already shown success at University of California Berkely, University of Denver, and Stanford. It is now expanding to New Mexico State, Loyola Marymount, and Gonzaga this fall.
“No one wants their deliveries to be done after a week or two weeks. Everyone is expecting them to be done on the same day, as well as curbside pickup options. There was already a rise in the expectations of e-commerce and on-demand deliveries even before the pandemic hit.” – Apeksha Kumavat, Co-founder and Chief Engineer, Gatik
The Advantages of Autonomous Robots Are Driving Demand
Without question, the pandemic helped drive demand for food delivery robots. The ability to have a warm, hot meal delivered right to your doorstep without human contact was ideal. But pre-pandemic trends were already moving in this direction. Not only were consumers increasingly choosing to make purchases via e-commerce. They also became accustomed to receiving their purchases quickly, often the same day. They quickly learned how convenient and time-efficient these types of services could be. And food delivery robots can help fulfill these needs.
An autonomous robot offers a number of advantages that delivery personnel cannot. For one, they can operate for extensive lengths of time without fatigue. They also become progressively cost-effective as their delivery trips increase in number. While maintenance and oversight are still required, they are much more easily managed. And as these robots advance from Level 3 to Level 4 autonomous functioning, they will become essentially independent. Especially with the difficulties businesses are having today finding employees, an autonomous robot provides a great solution. It’s therefore not surprising that autonomous robot companies are looking to grow in the midst of rising delivery service demand.
“Autonomous delivery is changing logistics as we know it, impacting billions of people around the world. The team at Starship has been developing and perfecting the technology and its operations for years, since creating the robot delivery category in 2014.” – Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Starship Technologies
From College Campuses to City Streets
While Kiwibot and Starship Technologies target colleges for their food delivery robots, others are exploring these services on city streets. One of the most well-known autonomous robot companies in this area is Nuro. Not only has the company partnered with CVS pharmacies, Domino’s, and Kroger. But it recently signed a deal to work with FedEx for pilot testing in the greater Houston area. Nuro therefore is not only providing food delivery robots but package-related services as well. The potential to grow in this area is tremendous compared to food delivery alone.
Other companies have already made such an impact in retail and distribution warehouses. Gatik provides autonomous robot solutions ranging from Level 1 to Level 6 functionalities. Their robots can be found in retail centers, distribution warehouses as well as offices providing microfulfillment services. In fact, one of Gatik’s largest partners is Walmart, where it provides short-haul logistics. If the success of these autonomous robot solutions can be duplicated for food delivery, food delivery robots will certainly increase. Several cities in the U.S. are already testing such services currently with positive results thus far.
Using the Pandemic as a Catalyst
While momentum already favored adoption of food delivery robots, the pandemic certainly helped. Contactless delivery has become preferred, and human-machine interactions have become second nature. In addition, companies like Kiwibot have disinfection procedures that take place for an autonomous robot after each delivery. These additional features have further increased the appeal for these types of services. Technological improvements are still in the works, and more testing needs to be done. But by all accounts, food delivery robots look to be the future not only for colleges but for everyone.