The San Francisco-based startup announced Tuesday it will expand this service to 100 universities over the next two years, thanks to an infusion of $40 million in new funding. The expansion, which will focus mostly on the US, starts with the University of Pittsburgh on Tuesday. Purdue University is coming in early September. George Mason University and Northern Arizona University came online in January and March, respectively.
“There’s going to be a whole generation of students that grow up tapping on their phone when they’re hungry and a robot brings food to them,” Lex Bayer, Starship’s CEO, said in an interview.
Starship is a part of the burgeoning delivery robots industry, which has already attracted corporate giants Amazon, Google and UPS, as well as a constellation of smaller players including Postmates and Workhorse. These companies see an opportunity to bring their customers things they need much faster, more cheaply or with far more convenience than current delivery options offer. And they could in some cases extend delivery times to nearly every hour of the day. These companies will, though, need to develop their services amid growing concerns about bots and automation stealing humans’ jobs.
Amazon is busy working on flying drones to deliver consumer goods to customers in 15 minutes through its Prime Air program and has already started a pilot in Britain. It’s also developed the Scout autonomous sidewalk robots, which look like and work similarly to Starship’s bots. It’s testing these deliveries in Washington state. UPS, meanwhile, is focusing on helping business customers, including efforts to bring flying drones to hospital campuses to speed the completion of lab tests.
Starship, too, has found a niche in this new market, saying it’s receiving heavy demand from college campuses for its squat, battery-powered, six-wheeled robots. Bayer explained that colleges aren’t so easily served by typical food delivery apps like Uber Eats or DoorDash, since there’s usually little available parking and campuses often feel like mazes to outsiders.
While those features make it hard for human delivery workers, they’re no concern for Starship’s autonomous bots, which are preloaded with detailed 3D maps of campuses before they ever start roaming around and which don’t need to park anywhere.
The Starship bots bring breakfast, late-night snacks and plenty else in between, letting students buy food from local restaurants through its app. The bots then bring orders to wherever customers are on campus for $1.99 per shipment. Starship also gets paid by the restaurant for making each delivery.
Starship typically uses 25 to 50 robots per campus, and they roam around seven days a week, rain or shine, from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Bayer said they don’t displace workers’ jobs, since deliveries often don’t exist on campuses. He said the company hires student workers to maintain, monitor and recharge the bots.
Bayer added that the bots are safe on sidewalks, driving at 4 mph and bristling with 10 cameras, radar, ultrasound sensors and GPS, in addition to sophisticated computer vision and neural networks to process what they see. These bots have already completed 100,000 deliveries and driven 300,000 miles, Bayer said.
Even though the Starship bots weigh just 50 pounds, he said thefts of the bots don’t happen since they include alarms and are monitored by humans. Also, a bot’s payload of food remains locked inside until a student opens it using the app.
Like just about any tech CEO, Bayer isn’t content just making the Starship bot ubiquitous on college campuses from coast to coast, with a goal of eventually serving 1 million students. The company has already started package deliveries in neighborhoods and parts deliveries on business and industrial campuses.
“Our model and vision is to move everything around in neighborhoods and cities,” Bayer said.
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