Photo: OSU/Blake Brown
It may look like a robot from a Star Wars movie, but those aren’t droids roaming around Oregon State University’s Corvallis campus. Starting Wednesday, Oct. 21, a fleet of 20 small Starship delivery robots will be bringing food orders to students, staff and faculty across the university’s more than 500-acre campus and beyond in the ultimate form of contactless delivery service. Oregon State is the first campus in the state to have autonomous delivery robots.
Oregon State University’s Housing & Dining Services and Memorial Union Retail Services began planning to use delivery robots long before the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, representatives of the San Francisco-based company Starship Technologies were on campus in March when the pandemic first shut down Oregon colleges and universities. The coronavirus delayed negotiations slightly, but also provided another reason to bring the service to campus and reduce contact between people during the pandemic.
“This was a long time coming,” said Kerry Paterson, director of residential dining and University Catering with UHDS. “We’d been considering contactless delivery for a while. This service is yet another way we can facilitate COVID protocols regulating restaurants.”
The boxy robots are small, with six wheels and a rounded white body, topped with a bright orange flag so that they’ll be more visible as they roam around campus. The robots have mapped the Corvallis campus using GPS and are able to find locations around the grounds. They can carry up to 20 pounds of food. They use a combination of sophisticated machine learning, artificial intelligence and sensors to travel on sidewalks and navigate around obstacles.
The computer vision-based navigation helps the robots to map their environment to the nearest inch. The robots can cross streets, climb curbs, travel at night and operate in both rain and snow. A team of humans monitor their progress remotely and can take control if needed. Starship Technologies’ robots have completed more than 500,000 autonomous deliveries to date.
When a customer places an order using the delivery app, they can select a location to meet their delivery robot. The customer will also receive a code in the app to unlock the robot when it arrives, so their order won’t be absconded by hungry passersby.
The robots can keep food hot or cold as well. Paterson said the menu will include many items prepared by kitchens located within University Housing & Dining Services and the Memorial Union.
“You unlock it, get your food and then off it goes to get sanitized and prepare for another delivery,” Paterson explained. Students, staff and visitors to campus can use the Starship app (iOS and Android) and choose from an expansive menu.
Starship Technologies, which was created by Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, owns the robots and is responsible for their maintenance and IT support. There is no cost to the university for the robots. Instead, a small delivery fee is added to orders.
Starship is already providing services to more than 10 campuses across the country, including George Mason University, Northern Arizona University and Purdue University.
“Delivery robots are an innovative way to help students with social distancing and they also make sense for a forward-thinking school like OSU,” said Ryan Tuohy, senior vice president of business development at Starship Technologies. “Our robots deliver day and night to get students what they need. We’re looking forward to becoming a part of campus life and helping to make daily life more convenient for everyone at OSU.”
Paterson said most people find the robots pretty adorable, with their rounded bodies and steady pace as they hurry around campus. The robots will be easy to spot around campus and he noted that their little warning flags are appropriately Beaver orange.
Currently, there are more than 2,210 students living in OSU residence halls on the Corvallis campus. Several COVID-specific safety measures are in place at this time, including no sit-down dining service in dining centers. All food is currently served in single-use, take-out containers and traffic flow has been adjusted to allow for six feet of distance between individuals. While express and pick-up options have been expanded this year, robot delivery also allows for less density in all OSU restaurant locations while still providing service to the greater campus community.