“We saw that business double overnight,” startup says of UK grocery deliveries.
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 many suburban and rural areas. But Starship’s rapid growth is a sign of what’s to come. In a decade or two, 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 number 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.
Trying (and catching) Starship myself
When I got to the nearly empty George Mason University’s campus last month, I launched the Starship app and saw the company was only offering food from two restaurants: Starbucks and the Wing Zone. I sat at a table outside the Starbucks and opened the Starship app. I set the delivery pin near the coffee shop and ordered a burger and pop from the Wing Zone.
The Starship app said my food would arrive in 33 minutes—plenty of time for me to amble over to the Wing Zone and see the loading process first-hand. Three Starship robots were parked outside the vacant-looking restaurant. A few minutes later, a Wing Zone worker came out and loaded bags into two different robots. Starship’s Touhy says restaurant workers don’t know where any particular order is going.
I planned to follow my robot back to the delivery point, but the two robots took off simultaneously and in opposite directions—neither of which appeared to be toward my drop-off point. I wasn’t sure which one was mine and had to guess. But by the time I realized I’d gotten it wrong, my robot was out of sight.
I hustled back to Starbucks, figuring I’d be OK. After all, the most direct route, a seven minute walk, required going up a stairway and going near a construction zone. My robot instead opted to drive to the nearest main road, which almost doubled the travel distance. So after I got to Starbucks, I guessed where the robot was going and tried to follow its route in reverse. Again, I guessed wrong and had to hustle to catch up.)
This is all to say: Starship’s robots travel faster than I expected. I’m a pretty fast walker, but I couldn’t catch my robot at a walking speed—I had to speed up to a jog. Still, that’s slower than many other robots on the market. Touhy says Starship’s robots have a top speed of four miles per hour (6.4 km/h), making it less likely to cause damage if it runs into something. Low speeds also greatly simplify the computational problems involved in autonomous operation.
Once I eventually caught up with the robot, I decided to see how it would deal with a bit of harassment. I leapt in front of the vehicle, blocking its path. It stopped before hitting me and patiently charted a new course to get around me. I jumped in front of it again, and again it turned in the other direction. I wondered if a Starship employee was watching me through the robot’s cameras, getting ready to call the police if I became too menacing. But when I asked Starship’s Touhy about it later, he chuckled and shrugged it off.
“If you were just jumping in front of it, we wouldn’t call that harassment,” he said. “That’s just curiosity.”
Touhy said that Starship only has “a handful of people overseeing all the robots in the operation around the world.” It’s unlikely that anyone even noticed me getting in my robot’s way, he said. “When the robot’s traveling, the vast majority of the time there’s not a human actively monitoring it,” he added.
Instead, Starship robots are designed to autonomously deal with even more severe interference by pedestrians.
“If, like, a group of people surrounded the robot and blocked it, the robot would identify the situation and say ‘Hello I’m a Starship delivery robot. Can you please let me pass,'” he told me. “That usually suffices to solve the situation. They’re like, ‘Wow this thing asked me to let it pass.'”
But in extreme cases, Touhy notes, a human being can review a robot’s situation and give it instructions on how to proceed.
Not the only bots on the block
Starship is far from the only company trying to make self-driving delivery robots. You can break the market down into two different sectors: sidewalk robots and street robots. In the last couple of years, we’ve extensively covered Nuro and Udelv, two of the leading companies focused on self-driving street vehicles. Nuro has scored partnerships with Domino’s and Kroger, while Walmart is working with both companies.
Starship seems to be the industry leader in the sidewalk segment of the market, but it does have some competitors. Some are big companies. Amazon has a sidewalk delivery robot called Scout that is based on its 2017 acquisition of the startup Scout. Postmates is developing a sidewalk robot of its own.
There are other startups working on sidewalk robots. One of Starship’s closest competitors, Kiwibot, is also seeing rapid growth. Like Starship, Kiwibot delivers food from restaurants to nearby customers. Customers order using a Kiwibot app, which shows all the restaurants available in their area. Kiwibot similarly has a strong foothold on college campuses, and the bots themselves even vaguely look alike—white rectangular prisms zipping around on tiny, rugged looking wheels (four for Kiwibot; six for Starship).
I spoke to Kiwibot’s head of development, David Rodriguez, in early April. He said the Bay Area company has been running services on the campuses of UC Berkeley, the University of Denver, and Tsi Ching University in Taiwan. The company’s Colombian founders have also established an office in Medellín, Colombia, and are operating a delivery service there.
Because Kiwibot operates mainly on college campuses, the company hasn’t seen a huge increase in demand for its existing services. Campuses have emptied out, leaving fewer customers—even if each customer orders takeout more often. But like Starship, Kiwibot has gotten no shortage of interest from cities eager to have robot deliveries for their residents. When I talked to Rodriguez in early April, he said that he was hoping to launch services in multiple California cities this month. In an email update this week, Rodriguez said the company still wasn’t ready to announce its new location but hoped to do so soon.
Regardless, there will be plenty of demand to keep Starship, Kiwibot, and their various competitors busy for months to come. The pandemic is unexpectedly accelerating the adoption of this technology. And if disease transmission remains a heightened concern for the foreseeable future, these delivery robots could become an important part of our national infrastructure within a few years (offering services beyond food, like delivering medical supplies for instance).
“It’s giving us hours”
The US is a big country, so even with rapid growth the vast majority of US communities won’t see delivery robots on their sidewalks this year. But back in Northern Virginia, I still had a delivery to accept.
When I stopped getting in my robot’s way, it merrily continued on to our rendezvous point near the Starbucks without a hitch. I opened the lid of the robot and took out a bag containing a burger and a bottle of Mr. Pibb. I left the lid open for a minute to see if the bot would either close the lid automatically or drive away. It did neither—it just sat there patiently until I finally closed the lid.
The burger was still warm—and it was delicious. After lunch, I went into the Starbucks to buy a cookie. The store had been converted to takeout only and was deserted aside from two guys behind the counter.
The man who took my order said that robot delivery volume was about the same as it had been before the campus shut down. There were fewer people on campus than before, but that was offset by greater robo-delivery interest among the people who were left.
“It’s giving us hours,” he said of the robots. “I’m grateful for that.”