On the morning of March 30, I made my way from my Washington, DC home to the George Mason University campus in Fairfax, Virginia. In just a few hours, the Mayor of DC, Muriel Bowser, and the Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, would issue coordinated home stay orders. But I wanted to try a new technology on the GMU campus that seems to be tailor-made for the moment – a technology that could help people get food without the risk of personal interaction.
The campus was extremely quiet; Most of the students and staff had been sent home long ago. But as I approached a Starbucks on the northern edge of the GMU, I heard a low hum and saw a six-wheeled, microwave-sized robot zipping along the sidewalk, turning, and parking in front of the cafe. The robot looked – and was essentially – a large white radiator on wheels. It was a delivery robot from Starship, a startup that has been on campus since the beginning of last year.
Even before the COVID 19 pandemic, small street robots like this one and in general seemed to be slowly gaining momentum. In general, these bots are light and slow enough that they are unlikely to hurt anyone. This has allowed companies to use them with minimal supervision in real-world applications, at a time when larger autonomous vehicles designed for road traffic still appear to be far from the usual commercial use.
These days, of course, corona virus locks have led to an increase in demand for grocery deliveries. In the past few weeks I have spoken to executives from two different street robot companies, Starship and Kiwibot. Both say they are trying to build new robots and serve new areas in the face of unprecedented interest.
Rbot deliveries remain rare enough that it is easy to dismiss them as curios. But that's a mistake. The technology is working now. Starship already uses hundreds of robots to deliver food to real customers. Spurred on by demand from blocked customers, this number could soon increase to thousands and eventually millions. With lower costs and no tip, robots could make take-out more popular than ever, as it is gradually replacing human-powered grocery deliveries.
Sidewalk robots will not completely eliminate human delivery of food. We need bigger, faster robots that drive on the street to reach customers in countless suburbs and rural areas. But Starship's rapid growth is a sign of what's to come. In a few years it could seem as anachronistic when someone brings you food as when you pay for long distance calls.
And at the moment there is certainly a clear incentive for a less human delivery of food.
The old Dominion
Fairfax City, Virginia, north of George Mason University, is one of Starship's newest expansion areas. The company launched a delivery service in the city last week, which took only a few weeks to set up thanks to close collaboration with city officials who felt the urgency of the corona virus.
"There are people in our city who ultimately rely on this service to gain access to food," said Chris Bruno, director of economic development at Fairfax City, to Ars last week. Bruno says the service is getting some food from the Local Safeway will deliver as well as takeaway food from several nearby restaurants.
Stuart James from Fairfax City tells Ars that the service suddenly appears to be everywhere in his city. When he went shopping in Safeway last Friday, he saw Starship people picking groceries, paying for them, and loading them into robots. James tried to order dinner for his family with Starship on Saturday evening, but was unable to. The app said, "Our robots are very busy right now." He was lucky to order breakfast the next morning.
"The food came in about 30 to 35 minutes," said James Ars via email. "It was still pretty hot."
James very much liked his initial experience with Starship. In terms of cost, it wasn't particularly important to rely on robots. "The fees they charged seemed to match Grubhub and other apps that I used before," he says to Ars. James even notes that robotic shipments had a big advantage over other on-demand delivery services: it isn't required to tip a robot.
Given the novelty of the service, James describes the Starship app as "very simple". For example, it would not allow him to add a credit card to the checkout. "Once you've ordered, you can only see your order and not look for other things," he says.
A video from Starship briefly explains how the delivery bots work.
"The kids went crazy"
However, the "fun factor" more than made up for the inconvenience, James said. "The kids went crazy when the thing came to the house. It greets you pleasantly when you get your food and even says" goodbye and have a nice day "when it comes."
The existing Starship service areas were also in high demand. For example, the company has had a grocery delivery service in Milton Keynes, a dense suburb an hour from London, for several years. "We saw the business double overnight," Starship's Ryan Touhy told Ars. Starship is currently working with local partners Tesco and Co-Op to further expand the service.
In recent weeks, Starship has started another grocery delivery service at DMV in the affluent DC district of Chevy Chase. Customers can choose from hundreds of popular groceries at the nearby Broad Branch Market – from wine to diapers. Further west, the company was just starting a service in Tempe, Arizona, south of Starships' existing service at Arizona State University. Several restaurants in the area take part. There is also a new service in downtown Mountain View, California that offers food and restaurant deliveries, and Touhy says Irvine, California will begin service shortly.
These fresh markets complement a number of existing starship services on a variety of other campuses, including the University of Houston, Purdue University and the University of Pittsburgh. The company also supplies food in Estonia and is experimenting with industrial applications in Germany and Denmark, said Touhy. "We have hundreds of robots around the world."
The rapid growth of Starship is particularly impressive because the company cannot simply drop a robot in a new city and turn it on. It must be purchased by city officials, register trading partners, and ensure that it has enough back-end resources to support each robot.
A map must also be created. Like most self-driving projects, Starship maps every area in which its robots work. This helps the robot in several ways. It can check its position by noting the positions of known landmarks. The map also helps the robot find out which objects are part of the landscape and which are likely to move, which supports the planning process. If the robot detects that the surroundings differ from the map, it sends information back to the control center so that the map can be updated.