Robot Food Delivery Is Here and Growing


08 November 2021

Hundreds of little robots are rolling around colleges and cities in the United States, Britain and elsewhere. The robots, about 50 centimeters tall, are bringing food like pizza to hungry students.

The robots were being tested in limited numbers before the pandemic started. But pandemic-related worker shortages and a desire for contactless delivery have expanded their use.

"We saw demand for robot usage just go through the ceiling," said Alastair Westgarth. He is the head of Starship Technologies, whose robots recently made their 2 millionth delivery. "I think demand was always there, but it was brought forward by the pandemic effect."

Starship has deployed more than 1,000 robots, up from just 250 in 2019. Hundreds more will be sent out soon. They are delivering food at 20 U.S. colleges and 25 more will be added soon. They are also operating in Milton Keynes, England; Modesto, California; and the company's hometown of Tallinn, Estonia.

The robots use cameras, sensors and GPS to move around and even cross streets on their own at the speed of 8 kilometers per hour.

Operators keep watch on several robots at a time but they say they rarely need to stop or move them around a barrier. When a robot arrives, people enter a code from their phones to open the robot and get their food.

There are some limitations for now. The robots have to be recharged regularly. They are slow and cannot travel far. They will not leave food at the door. And big cities like New York and Beijing are not welcoming them.

A food delivery robot crosses a street in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
A food delivery robot crosses a street in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Data company NPD found that U.S. food delivery orders increased 66 percent for the year ending in June. And delivery demand could remain high even after the pandemic because people have gotten used to the service.

Ji Hye Kim is the chef of Miss Kim restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She used robot delivery when her dining room was closed last year.

Kim prefers robots to delivery companies which cost more and sometimes cancel orders if they do not have enough drivers. Delivery companies also group several orders per trip, she said, so food sometimes arrives cold. Robots take just one order at a time.

Kim said the robots also excite people who often share videos of their interactions.

Denis Maloney is the vice president at Domino's Pizza. His company is testing robots from Nuro, a California-based company. The robots are about 1.8 meters tall and can travel at a top speed of 40 kilometers on streets, not sidewalks.

Maloney said Nuro delivery costs more than using human drivers for now. But as the technology gets more popular, the costs will go down.

Brendan Witcher is a technology expert with Forrester. He said it is easy to get excited about robots. But they will need to prove to companies they are better than human delivery drivers.

It is "the right time and place for companies considering robots to test them and learn from them and do their own evaluation."

I'm Dan Novak.

Dee-Ann Durbin reported this story for The Associated Press. Dan Novak adapted it for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

delivery n. the act of taking something to a person or place

ceiling n. an upper limit

sensor n. a device that detects or senses heat, light, sound, motion, etc., and then reacts to it in a particular way

GPS n. a device that detects or senses heat, light, sound, motion, etc., and then reacts to it in a particular way

code n. a set of letters, numbers, symbols, etc., that is used to secretly send messages to someone

chef n. a professional cook who usually is in charge of a kitchen in a restaurant

dining room n. a room that is used for eating meals

interact v. to talk or do things with other people

evaluation n. to judge the value or condition of (someone or something) in a careful and thoughtful way