Students and faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago might notice something new wandering around this academic year. Among the throngs heading to classes, you can now spot the occasional squat autonomous vehicle valiantly trying to make its way through campus.
What are these robots up to? They might be delivering your lunch.
Starship Technologies, the company operating the fleet of robots, hopes this is the future of food delivery, claiming the vehicles are “faster, smarter and more cost-efficient” than relying on humans. The company was created in 2014 by Skype co-founders Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla. Although the vehicles have been running for years in Europe, the company has been expanding its presence on college campuses in the United States.
According to Ryan Tuohy, senior vice president of business development and sales, when Starship first launched at George Mason University in 2019 the response was far better than expected.
“I was hopeful the response would be positive, but it was beyond positive,” Tuohy said. “It was adoration. It’s like we released a fleet of puppies.” He says it’s not uncommon for students to take selfies with the robots.
Each six-wheeled vehicle is about the size of a large cooler and contains a compartment where food orders or groceries can be stashed. It has multiple cameras, which theoretically means it shouldn’t run into anyone or anything. Starship also claims if someone tries to interfere with one, an alarm will sound.
Like you, I still had many questions about these robots. Fortunately, my wife is a professor at UIC, so I tagged along with her to campus to see them in action.
Currently, restaurant options remain limited, focusing almost exclusively on large national chains like Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, Sbarro, Panda Express and Starbucks. Tuohy explains Starship launches with restaurants that are technically on campus, before expanding to other options around the area. It just so happens UIC only has these options right now. Hopefully Starship can bring in some of these family-owned restaurants soon; but currently, if you are looking for a more interesting lunch or dinner, there are no robots for you.
Deciding to go with Panda Express, I placed an order on the Starship app at 11:30 a.m. on a recent weekday. Immediately, I got an alert saying that my food would be delivered in “10 to 22 minutes.” Six minutes later, I got an alert that a delivery robot was on its way. On the app, I could watch the robot’s progress on a map, as it moved from the UIC Student Center East toward University Hall.
At 11:41 a.m., the robot rolled right up to the east entrance, turned suddenly and then came to an abrupt stop. After I confirmed the delivery on the app, a voice piped up from the robot saying, “Hello, this is your delivery.” The top hatch unlocked, and I pulled out a bag with my order. After I closed the lid, it waited a few seconds to make sure I got everything before zooming away.
Considering how quickly the food was delivered, my Panda Express order was piping hot when I opened the containers. The delivery fee was only $1.99, which isn’t bad. Since it’s a robot, you don’t have anyone to tip.
Tuohy said people assume the company is expanding on college campuses because they tend to be pedestrian friendly. “But we started in downtown London,” Tuohy said. “We picked college campuses to serve an unmet need. College kids know how precious every dollar is. Are they going to want to spend $4.99 on a delivery fee, plus more for a tip?”
While he’s not worried about the robots handling Chicago winters, Tuohy doesn’t have any news about whether Starship will expand outside the university borders. But keep your eyes peeled — I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes soon.