FLAGSTAFF, AZ — Starship Technologies has partnered with Northern Arizona University's food vendor Sodexo to bring a fleet of food delivery robots to campus.
Students and staff can order food and drinks through an app linked to restaurants that have signed up for the program. Once the order has been placed, students can track the robots on campus through a map showing exactly where their food is and how long it will take to deliver.
"It takes an average of 15-20 minutes for students to get their food," according to Ryan Tuohy, Senior Vice President of Business Development at Starship Technologies.
Starship was founded in 2014 by Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla, the two men who also founded Skype. Tuohy said the Starship robots have been making deliveries on the streets of Europe for more than four years now.
"The robots are equipped with a suite of sensors that provide various inputs to navigate along maps. The first time we come to a campus we drive the robots all over the campus. During that time, their sensors are collecting data and creating 3-D maps, which wouldn't be very interesting to you and me, but they're absolutely perfect for the robots," explained Tuohy.
Powered by sensors, radar, ultra-sonics and artificial intelligence similar to that used by self-driving cars, the robots are able to navigate roads and paths all over the University. Permanent objects like speed bumps, trees, and plants are no problem for he robots. Moving objects such as cars and pedestrians prompt the robots to slow down and stop, once the object gets close to them.
Tuohy said the robots can tell the difference between a person who is walking or running, a bicycle, and a car. The robots can also use voice commands to communicate with pedestrians.
Initially, Tuohy said the robots got a lot of curious looks from students who wanted to take selfies with it, but within a couple weeks he said most college students just accepted them as part of the campus.
Students ABC15 spoke to on campus had mixed reactions. Most of them think the robots are pretty cool.
"You wake up one morning and all of a sudden your campus is taken over by little robots running around. They were kind of coming at me," said NAU student Cassandra Good.
"I was just, like bewildered. I did not know what was happening in front of me. They just sort of went by me," said her friend Ben Macy.
Ben Hartley, the director of campus dining at NAU said the robots are busy. "We're currently doing about 200 orders a day. We expect that number to double in the next week or two," said Hartley.
NAU is the second university in the country to get these coveted robots, following George Mason University in Virginia. After a few weeks of studying student dining habits, university officials say they have already noticed one big shift.
Students who normally skipped meals, especially breakfast were now eating. They are seen an increase in the number of students who are now eating breakfast.
One NAU student said the robots might come in handy during the cold Flagstaff winters. "Especially during the snow season, I think a lot of kids will use them," said the college freshman.
ABC15 asked Starship officials why they chose NAU for their second big launch. "NAU is known as a school for innovation," said Tuohy. He said he was impressed after seeing the online robotics competitions the university held every year, and thought it was a great fit for a school that placed such a high importance on innovative technology.
While most students ignore the robots, some students say their friends try to "mess" with them. "Lots of people go up to them, kick them, skate over them, throw rocks at them," said one student.
So far, Tuohy said no one has tried to steal one, but he warns students not to try, saying the robots are equipped with GPS and dozens of cameras.
One student said she was told if someone tried to pick up the robot it would ask you to put it down, then warn you that it was going to call the police.
"Let's just say if somebody actually does eventually take the robot, it won't be hard for us to find them or who did it," said Tuohy.
The only way to unlock the robot to get to the food inside is through the app - by the person who ordered the food.
Right now, the robots are running from 8 a.m. till 10 p.m. on the NAU campus. University officials say there are plans to extend those hours, and allow students to use their "dining dollars" instead of just cash through the app.