Food Delivery Robots Delivering Food During the Pandemic

Across the United States and beyond, students can order food on their smartphone app and see a little robot scooting to their location. These roving machines aren’t new, but they’re gaining popularity during the pandemic as they ease restaurant delivery in areas where it’s difficult or impossible for humans to go. The insulated vehicles can hold hot or cold food, and they use cameras to safely navigate obstacles and traffic. Students can unlock the robot using their phone and retrieve their order at its designated drop-off spot.

The University of Tennessee started offering food delivery robot deliveries from its restaurants by robot in March, and the school says it has already seen an increase in sales. It plans to roll out more locations on campus. Starship, the company that makes the robots, offers service at more than 20 colleges in the United States, as well as in Milton Keynes, England; Modesto, California; and the Estonian city of Tallinn. The robots are roughly 50 centimeters tall, the size of a small cooler.

Ohio State University will also offer robot-based food delivery on its Columbus campus this fall. The college says it has already received orders for pizza, chicken wings and burritos from its restaurants and is preparing to deploy the robots. The rovers are outfitted with safety features including GPS tracking and cameras that operate within a geofenced environment. They’re also equipped with a battery-powered power system, which enables the robots to charge from an outlet on their way back to the restaurants.

While demand for food delivery on third-party apps like DoorDash and Postmates more than doubled during the pandemic, it’s still too expensive to make many of them profitable. And some restaurateurs don’t want to pay the higher fees that come with working through those companies, which take a cut of each sale.

That’s why a handful of restaurants are starting to partner with the startup Ottobot, which launched in 2020. Its rovers, called Coco, zip along sidewalks in Southern California and Texas, picking up and dropping off food from family-owned restaurants and other eateries. Remote operators keep tabs on several robots at a time but say they rarely need to hit the brakes or steer around an obstacle. Customers can enter a code from their phones to open the robot, then take out the ordered food from its refrigerator. The robots are electric, which means they must recharge regularly. They also can’t travel far—they remain within a pre-mapped radius of a restaurant, and they won’t leave food at the door.

Ji Hye Kim, chef and managing partner of the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based restaurant Miss Kim, partnered with a local robot company, Refraction AI, shortly before the pandemic started last year and relied on it for delivery when restaurants were closed. She prefers the robots to third-party delivery companies, which she says often charge more and sometimes cancel orders if they don’t have enough drivers. Plus, she likes that the robots pick up one order at a time—as opposed to multiple orders on a single trip for human delivery workers.