The robots have arrived at Bridgewater State University, and they‘re delivering burgers and fries.
From dawn to dusk, 15 squat, white, six-wheeled machines trundle across the campus, toting snacks and drinks between the university’s four restaurants and the 1,200 students in the school’s residence halls. The self-driving machines are engineered in the tiny eastern European nation of Estonia by San Francisco-based Starship Technologies, and Bridgewater State is the first university in Massachusetts to deploy them.
“It’s just something new and adventurous,” said Staci DeSimone, general manager of Sodexo, the company that runs the campus restaurant system. “Something unique, that helps the university stand out from other universities.”
It’s also extra insurance against possible COVID-19 infections, because it reduces the chance of students and restaurant workers infecting each other.
Starship was founded in 2014 by the Estonian co-inventors of Skype, the videoconferencing software now owned by Microsoft. The company’s robots rolled out in a big way in 2018, when the company partnered with British retailers Tesco and Co-operatives UK to launch a robot delivery service in the town of Milton Keynes, near London. This year, Starship plans to deploy a total of 300 robots in Britain as it expands the service to a second town, Northampton.
But in the United States, Starship is mainly selling to college campuses. There, the company finds plenty of demand for food delivery, as well as lots of broad footpaths and little automobile traffic. “It’s kind of perfect for the little robots,” said Starship’s East Coast manager, Juan Canahui. “It’s very drivable for us.”
George Mason University was the first school to install a Starship system, in 2019. In total, the robots have been put to work at 12 US colleges, including Purdue University, the University of Mississippi, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California Los Angeles.
Karen Jason, Bridgewater State’s vice president of operations, said the university saw how well the system worked at George Mason and wanted delivery robots of its own. “We’re trying to do continual improvement,” Jason said. “That was the big improvement for the spring semester 2021.”
Starship operates on college campuses in partnership with Sodexo, a French company that runs dining services for large organizations worldwide, including public school systems, hospitals, large businesses, and over 600 US colleges and universities.
In most of its college deployments, the school doesn’t put up a cent, but simply gives Starship and Sodexo permission to digitally map the campus, bring in a fleet of robots, and start delivering meals. Revenues for Starship come from the delivery fees paid by students, faculty, and staff — $1.99 plus 10 percent of the value of the order.
But when COVID-19 shut down the BSU campus last March, just as deliveries were about to begin, Starship and Sodexo no longer had a revenue stream. Even with student housing reopening this school year, most classes are still taught online, and the 1,200 students who reside on campus are fewer than half the usual number. But the school, still committed to robotic deliveries, paid an undisclosed sum to Sodexo and Starship to keep the project alive.
According to Starship, its beer-cooler-size robots cost about as much as a high-priced laptop. The machines are almost entirely self-driving, running from 6:45 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. They usually rely on a built-in digital map of the campus. The robots compare the map to images from the cameras mounted on all four sides to figure out where they are. The cameras, as well as ultrasonic sensors, ensure the robot doesn’t bump into things or people. Stand in its path, and it slows to a halt, then tries to figure out a way to get around you. (A GPS system is also on board, but it’s used only as a last resort.)
Staff members disinfect the robots after each trip, then pack each student’s food inside the insulated body of the machine. Though the machines could handle two or three orders at a time, it’s one robot per customer, to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. And students eat meals in their rooms, rather than in crowded dining halls.
The self-driving system doesn’t always work, though. Robots occasionally get lost or run off the road. A team of four workers is always on hand to take manual remote control of the machines, or to carry out hands-on repairs. Starship site manager Joe Maloney predicts that instead of eliminating human jobs, the robots could generate as many as 15 new jobs at BSU, once the campus fully reopens.
In the meantime, Starship robots can count on help from BSU students who’ve taken a liking to the machines. “They really care about them,” DeSimone said. “If they go off the sidewalk a little bit . . . they send us screenshots all the time.”
Carolyn Fopiano, a junior studying special education, dug out one of them stuck in a snowbank after a recent storm. Fopiano always has her breakfast delivered by robot, because it’s quicker than walking to the nearest restaurant. “Also,” she added, “I think it’s cute.”
Delivery robots may start to roll out more broadly. Last fall, Starship launched a grocery delivery service in Modesto, Calif. And other companies are making moves. FedEx is testing Roxo, a package-delivery bot designed in cooperation with Dean Kamen, the New Hampshire inventor of the Segway scooter. And the retail giant Amazon has been testing a package-delivery vehicle called Scout.
Amazon’s a particularly dangerous rival, but Starship’s Canahui seems unworried. “I don’t think Amazon has quite caught up to us yet,” he said. “We’ve been at this since 2014.”