The robots have landed! In recent weeks, many Pittsburghers have come across a white-boxy, two-foot-tall machine on wheels. These robots have been roaming around the University of Pittsburgh’s campus since the beginning of October.
With little to no news informing Pitt’s campus that pedestrians would be sharing the sidewalks with these robots, many bystanders shared looks of amazement and confusion whenever one drove past them on the street. Common exclamations include, “What is that thing?”, “How does it know when to cross the street?”, “What if you flipped it on its side?”
In the midst of writing this article, these robots were publicly criticized at Pitt due to safety concerns and the potential obstruction to pedestrian’s accessibility. When crossing the road, these robots need to be positioned in the middle of the curb cutout, hindering pedestrians whom may also need that space to cross. This criticism was only a few days after the initial release of the robots, and prompted the machines to be removed from the streets. After a few days, however, the robots reappeared at the end of October.
Who exactly is behind these creatures? Starship Technologies is an international company operating in several cities around the world. Its business headquarters are located in San Francisco, while its main engineering office is located in Estonia. Skype co-founders, Ahti Heinla and Janus Fariis, founded Starship Technologies and launched the company in 2014. As of August 2019, 100,000 deliveries have been completed and funding has reached $40 million.
Starship’s website displays clear explanations as to the primary functions of its self-driving delivery robots, the robot’s safety and security, cost benefits, and its reliable and clean energy usage. The business strategy combines mobile technology, its autonomous robots, and partnerships with stores and restaurants to “make local delivery faster, smarter and more cost-efficient.” The company promotes itself as being “the world’s first on-demand delivery service using autonomous robots.” Its main business goal is to revolutionize the way food and packages are delivered and provide convenience to improve the everyday life.
Many other universities around the U.S. have already welcomed Starship’s robots: George Mason University, Purdue University, and Northern Arizona University, among others. The company plans to expand to over 100 campuses over the next two years.
FUNCTIONALITY OF ROBOTS
The battery-powered robots are 98% autonomous intended to serve people anytime, anywhere. The robots can, however, be monitored and controlled remotely by humans, if necessary. Each robot is equipped with locks, a GPS, and cameras. A reflective antenna is attached to make the robot easily visible and front headlights are used to light its path. Its robust detection technology to sense objects when driving uses a multitude of cameras, radars, and ultrasonics. Machine learning is ultimately what enables these robots to constantly adapt and learn about its environment. Starship’s robots largely navigate on the sidewalks and with that comes more unpredictable factors, such as humans stopping abruptly or being distracted by his or her phone. The program that allows its robots to understand the surrounding area in real time is an object detection module. In order to progress and function in even the most extreme weather conditions, these robots are tested so as to drive in the rarest cases. Starship’s robots use a neural network architecture, similar to how the human brain processes data and adapts to changing inputs. Tanel Pärnamaa, a Starship Technologies deep learning engineer gives a more in-depth explanation of how the company developed and tested its robots in his article, “How Neural Networks Power Robots at Starship.”
BENEFITS OF ROBOTS
University students are the main target audience for this new cutting-edge technology because of this market’s fast-paced, always on-the-go lifestyle. The convenience of being able to order food and have it delivered after a long study session is ideal for college students. Likewise, people with disabilities may also greatly benefit from the robot’s delivery services.
HOW TO ORDER
Now, how exactly do these robots actually work? With maximum speeds of 4 mph, these delivery robots fulfill orders placed through the companies own app, “Starship-Deliveries.” Similar to ordering packages online, the app promotes a seamless experience starting with ordering to tracking and then unlocking the robot from the smartphone. Depending on which local restaurants and stores partner with Starship, consumers are able to order fresh groceries, meals or even redirecting packages to be delivered within minutes.
HOW ORDERS ARE MADE
The company recently added the University of Pittsburgh as a location on the app. As of October 29th, people can choose between three businesses, Common Grounds, Forbes Street Market, and SubConnection, and can only be delivered to areas on lower campus.
When on the app, one is prompted to type or roughly pinpoint the desired location for where the robot should deliver the food. Once a location has been selected, a list of businesses is shown with a brief description of the kinds of foods they offer and a broad time range, usually between 15-20 min for when service will be delivered. After clicking on a company’s page, one can use the filter and search icons to make ordering faster. The store’s hours of operations are also listed right below the business name. The app also allows for customization of products, such as being able to change the milk type, ice level, number of espresso shots, etc. for a mocha Frappuccino. Once all wanted items are selected, the products are shown in the shopping cart with the total price, delivery location, and estimated time of arrival. Payment can be made by most credit card companies like VISA, MasterCard, Amex, JCB, and Discover. It seems as though if a person wants to order food from multiple businesses, two different transactions would have to be made and the food would be delivered from two different robots.
MY OWN EXPERIENCE WITH ORDERING
On October 29th, I ordered my first ever meal from a robot. I went to sit at a table in Schenley Plaza, an open-green space near the Cathedral of Learning. I was able to choose the location so that the robot would come right to my table. As I placed an order for a 6” ham sandwich from SubConnection, I paid using my Discover card and was immediately notified that my sandwich was in the works and would take roughly 25 minutes.
The delivery fee was $1.99 and I had the option for my receipt to be emailed to me. Schenley Plaza is relatively a 2-minute walk from SubConnection located on the ground floor of the William Pitt Union. Once the food was in-transit, the estimated time updated to the respected minutes remaining. Total time it took once I submitted my order was 15-minutes. It was amazing to watch the robot cross the street and many on-lookers watched as my robot came toward me. I then received a notification telling me that my robot was at its destination and asked for me to meet at my selected location. Once I was right next to the robot, the app gave me the ability to unlock the top from my iPhone. My sandwich was wrapped nicely in a brown paper bag stored in a cooler-like compartment. There were two sections separated by a divider: one section had three cup-holders and the other was a hot or cold food section. After collecting my food, I closed the lid and swiped a button saying that I was ready to send my robot away.
Coincidentally, a Starship Technologies employee named Henry was following the robot as it approached me to ensure there were no issues. He greeted me and I was overjoyed to be able to ask him some questions. He was very friendly and asked me for my opinions on the service and how I had heard about the company. He spoke about how Starship Technologies is still in its testing phase at the University of Pittsburgh and the official release is yet to occur. The company is planning on adding more payment methods other than solely credit cards. He also provided more detail on the ordering process, such as how the partnered businesses have tablets that notify when an order is placed through the app. Overall, the entire process was very seamless and the quick service exceeded my expectations.
ROBOTS AT PITT
The company recently set up shop where the New Balance store used to be located on the corner of Forbes and Oakland; adjacent to Panera Bread. The company partnered with Pitt’s dining contractor, Sodexo, and other local restaurants like Forbes Street Market to deliver to students across campus. In August, a community meeting was held to discuss Pitt’s upcoming projects that would impact Oakland. Starship Technologies head of government affairs, David Catania, spoke on behalf of its partnership with Pitt. Plans stated that the company would start a pilot of 25 robots on campus in late September; however, it was not until early October did the campus first encounter these robots.
Online food ordering services like Grubhub, UberEats, DoorDash, and Postmates already have a high presence on Pitt’s campus. It will be interesting to see how quickly people at the University of Pittsburgh will adopt Starship’s new way of food-delivery. How soon will other companies follow suit and create other versions of personal delivery robots? Will a different kind of robot be competing Starship Technologies on the same grounds? A new era of how we receive parcels and food from autonomous robots could be the next disruption to the market and Starship Technologies is at the forefront of this evolution. The next time you are in the mood for something to eat, you may want to think about ordering from a Starship’s robot and not have to move a muscle to satisfy your hunger!