These Robots Deliver

Published September 27, 2019

“They’re coming to get me!”

That was the caption my college freshman jokingly texted several weeks ago when she took a picture of the newly debuted delivery robots roaming the Purdue University campus.

About 30 food-delivery bots began scouring portions of the West Lafayette Campus in early September. The robots are a pilot program being tested by Starship Technologies out of San Francisco.

According to various press releases, the robots look a bit like coolers on wheels. The units deliver food and drink orders to a large part of Purdue’s central campus.  Six restaurants currently utilize the bots to transport items to customers.

Cosi is one of the West Lafayette establishments making use of the delivery robots. The café-style restaurant recently reported to Emily DeLetter of the Lafayette Journal & Courier that the delivery process is rather simple from their end. They receive a notification when an order comes in; they fulfill the order; the order is placed in one of the bots waiting in line behind the restaurant; and away it goes. The restaurant shared with the Journal & Courier that it saw 54 transactions on a late-September Sunday, which it considered a very successful day.

From a customer’s perspective, the student simply downloads the Starship Deliveries app, places an order and pins a delivery location. The student can then watch the robot’s progress in real-time as it travels across campus to the pinned destination. Once the robot arrives, the student receives an alert on his phone and can unlock the cooler via the app. The robot deliveries do incur a delivery fee, but otherwise can work in conjunction with a student’s meal plan.

As for the bots, each can carry up to 20 pounds, according to the Starship release. Fully charged, the bots are available to make deliveries from 8am to 2am. The robots use 10 cameras and “a combination of sophisticated machine learning, artificial intelligence and sensors” to travel on sidewalks and navigate obstacles.  The units are reportedly equipped to handle harsh weather conditions. They can even talk. My daughter shared that one robot recently asked for permission to cross the street with her.

Of course, there is always a human behind the scenes overseeing the robots. Robot operators observe the bots remotely and assist as needed, transport the robots to delivery areas and shifts, ensure they are charged and more.

The robots are certainly a unique site to see while on the Purdue campus. While images of the robots parading around the Boiler Boundaries may conjure up a sense that something is “coming for me”, the bots are just another example of the way technology is changing the landscape across America.

To see a bot in action, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIxhfFGVnh4.