Hungry? An autonomous robot at Missouri S&T could deliver your food on campus
Robots are not uncommon in labs and classrooms on the campus of Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, but this year they are taking to the sidewalks and bringing people food.
“They are very cute. I think they’re adorable,” said Kayla Barrett, a freshman computer science and engineering major from St. Louis, shortly after retrieving a hamburger from one of the delivery robots.
The units are white coolers about the size of a large microwave on six wheels, and they can be seen whizzing along sidewalks and even crossing some streets on campus.
Students, faculty or anyone on campus can order food from university dining services and have it delivered to nearly any location on campus. When the robot arrives, customers tap a few buttons on their phone to unlock the lid, and they can get their food.
It’s less than a 10-minute walk from the food court in the Havener Center to the Residential Commons dorm where Barrett lives, but she still uses and automated delivery service:
“There's not as many lines, and it will send your food to you. So you have more time for homework,” Barrett said. “The experience is mostly good. Sometimes things will be wrong or be a little soggy, but they fix it most of the time.”
The school has a fleet of 21 of the delivery robots that are owned and operated by the company Starship. They have GPS, cameras and a lot of technology on board to keep them on course and away from obstacles.
The program launched in November, and just a few months in the university calls it an overwhelming success.
“We're averaging over 150 deliveries a day from all of our units, which is beyond all of our expectations. To be honest, Starship is happy and we are happy,” said Mark Potrafka, the director of Havener Center and Hospitality Services at S&T.
Dining Services wanted to get into food delivery during the coronavirus pandemic, but the challenges of finding enough delivery workers and being able to pay them a reasonable amount when deliveries could be sporadic scuttled the idea.
That’s when Starship and its autonomous robots became an option.
Einstein Bagels, the most popular dining services option for delivery, has seen its sales increase $4,000 a week since the robots started making deliveries.
S&T started with 15 robots in November and has already added six more to try to keep up with demand.
While the service is popular, it hasn’t led to a decrease in people showing up to dine in person.
“We haven't seen a big drop in the food court or anything like that. I think this is just another way for the students to get their dining for the day,” said Sam Farrar, the director of dining services at S&T. “I think it's just been an added service for them.”
The program doesn’t cost S&T anything. Starship adds a $2.50 fee and a percentage of the food cost on each delivery.
Starship operates on a number of college campuses, including Missouri State University's in Springfield. But it may be more successful in Rolla because of the STEM focus of so many of its students.
“Because of that culture of innovation and the students desire to seek it out. Students who are, who are into robotics and engineering. They love being able to see a real-life application of their major affecting their day-to-day life," said Kaleb Thomas, a campus marketing specialist at Starship. “They end up adopting our bots almost like pets.”
Many of the robots at S&T have been adorned with names like “Sputnik” and “Iron Giant” unofficially by students with a label maker. Others have googly eyes stuck on.
Technically, Starship robots are not supposed to be altered that way, but the culture on campus is to look the other way as long as the alterations aren’t permanent.
S&T sees the delivery robots as a recruiting tool, showing off the campus as modern and innovative. So much so that during a campus visit day over spring break when few students were around, the school programmed the robots to make fake runs around campus just so parents and prospective students would see them in action.
While the robots are in high demand and often called cute, not everyone loves them.
“I can see their benefit, but I don't like them here because most of what they're used for is going for the dorms that way where they're going basically off campus out on the sidewalks, they take up sidewalk space that a lot of people use to get here and they love to get in the way,” said Matt Hajek, a geology major from St. Louis.
So far, there have been no collisions between the robots and cars, though a few robots have gotten caught up in the snow and required human help to get unstuck. The City of Rolla has been happy with the program and also reports no problems with them.
Missouri S&T plans to look for ways to expand the automated delivery service in the fall.