On the morning of March 30, I set out from my home in Washington, DC, to the campus of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. In only a few hours, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam would issue coordinated stay-at-home orders. But I was going to GMU’s campus to check out a new technology seemingly tailor-made for the moment—technology that could help people get food without the risks of face-to-face interactions.
Campus was eerily quiet; most students and staff had long been sent home. But as I approached a Starbucks at the northern edge of GMU, I heard a faint buzzing and saw a six-wheeled, microwave-sized robot zip along the sidewalk, turn, and park in front of the coffee shop. The robot looked like—and essentially was—a large white cooler on wheels. It was a delivery robot from Starship, a startup that has been operating on campus since early last year.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, small sidewalk robots like this seemed to be slowly gaining traction here and at large. Generally, these bots are light and slow-moving enough that they’re unlikely to hurt anyone. That has allowed companies to start using them in real-world applications, with minimal supervision, at a time when larger autonomous vehicles designed for road use still seem far from mainstream commercial use.
These days, of course, coronavirus lockdowns have created a surge in demand for food deliveries. In recent weeks, I’ve talked to executives from two different sidewalk robot companies, Starship and Kiwibot. Both say they’re scrambling to build new robots and roll out service to new areas in the face of unprecedented interest.
Robot deliveries remain rare enough that it’s easy to dismiss them as curiosities. But that’s a mistake. The technology works now. Starship already has hundreds of robots in service delivering food to real customers. Spurred by demand from locked-down customers, that number could soon soar to the thousands and eventually into the millions. With lower costs and no need to tip, robots could make takeout more popular than ever as it gradually displaces human-driven food deliveries.
Sidewalk robots won’t eliminate human-driven food delivery entirely. We’ll need bigger, faster robots that travel in the street to reach customers in myriad suburban and rural areas. But Starship’s rapid growth is a sign of what’s to come. In a few years, having a human being bring you food could seem as anachronistic as paying for long-distance phone calls.
And right now, certainly, there’s clear appeal to less human-involved food delivery.
The Old Dominion
Fairfax City, Virginia, just north of George Mason University, represents one of Starship’s newest expansion areas. The company launched delivery service in the city last week, and setting that up only took a few weeks thanks to close cooperation with city officials who felt a sense of urgency due to the coronavirus.
“There are people in our city who will end up relying on this service as a way to access food,” Chris Bruno, Fairfax City’s director of economic development, told Ars last week. Bruno says the service will deliver some groceries from the local Safeway as well as takeout food from several nearby restaurants.
Fairfax City resident Stuart James tells Ars that the service suddenly seems to be everywhere in his town. When he went grocery shopping at Safeway last Friday, he saw Starship people picking out groceries, paying for them, and loading them into robots. James tried to order dinner for his family using Starship on Saturday evening, but he was unable to do so. The app said, “our robots are very busy right now.” He had better luck ordering breakfast the next morning.
“The food came in about 30 to 35 minutes,” James told Ars via email. “It was still pretty hot.”
James liked a lot about his initial Starship experience. Cost-wise, relying on robots didn’t come at a premium. “The fees they charged seemed in line with Grubhub and other apps I’ve used before,” he tells Ars. James even notes there was a big advantage to robot deliveries versus other on-demand delivery services: there’s no need to tip a robot.
Given the newness of the service, James describes the Starship app as “very basic.” It wouldn’t allow him to add a credit card until checkout, for instance. “Once you order, you can only see your order, and you can’t browse for other things,” he says.
“The kids went nuts”
However, these inconveniences were more than made up for by the “fun factor,” James said. “The kids went nuts when that thing came up to the house. It pleasantly greets you when you get your food and even says ‘goodbye and have a nice day’ as it leaves.”
Starship’s previously existing service areas have seen strong demand as well. For example, the company has had a grocery delivery service for a couple of years in Milton Keynes, a dense suburban area an hour from London. “We saw that business double overnight” as a result of the region’s coronavirus lockdown,” Starship executive Ryan Touhy told Ars. Starship is currently working with local partners Tesco and Co-Op to further expand service.
In recent weeks, Starship launched another grocery-delivery service in the DMV, in the affluent DC neighborhood of Chevy Chase. Customers can choose from hundreds of common grocery items from the neighborhood’s Broad Branch Market—everything ranging from wine to diapers. Farther west, the company just launched a service in Tempe, Arizona, just south of Starship’s existing service at Arizona State University. Several area restaurants are participating. There’s also a new service in downtown Mountain View, California, offering grocery and restaurant deliveries, and Touhy says Irvine, California, will begin service shortly.
These fresh markets are in addition to a number of existing Starship services on a plethora of other university campuses, including the University of Houston, Purdue University, and the University of Pittsburgh. The company also delivers groceries in Estonia and is experimenting with industrial applications in Germany and Denmark, Touhy said. “We have many hundreds of robots around the world.”
Starship’s rapid growth is particularly impressive because the company can’t just plop down a robot in a new city and turn it on. It has to get buy-in from city officials, sign up commercial partners, and make sure it has enough back-end resources to support each robot.
It also needs to create a map. Like most self-driving projects, Starship pre-maps each area where its robots operate. This helps the robot in a number of ways. It can verify its position by noting the locations of known landmarks. The map also helps the robot figure out which objects are part of the landscape and which are likely to move, which aids the planning process. If the robot notices that the environment differs from the map, it sends back information to headquarters so the map can be updated.