US college campus delivery robots are making an impact. Delivery robot vendors are making a play for campuses across the country to establish a new market in a defined and structured environment, free of much of the regulatory complications of municipalities and ordinances. But what about cyber threats and hacking of these new helpers? The robots are no different from anyother cyber challenges.
Starship Technologies is delivering 30 autonomous robots for food service to South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD. These robots deliver food items from three campus vendors that include Grille Works, Papa Johns, and Starbucks. Additional food vendors are being added later this year. Robots do not accept tips, which is great for college kids.
"The one thing we have learned in recent years is that students and faculty like flexibility in their dining options," said the associate vice president for student affairs at SDSU. "The ability to have something delivered to various locations throughout campus and the community will be impactful to our students and employees as they continue to manage busy and demanding schedules. We are excited about this partnership the robotics technology and the student employment opportunities Starship will bring to our campus."
Does a campus of 14,000 students and faculty need 30 delivery robots? With ongoing concerns about clustered dining during the Corona pandemic, there is some case to be made for the flexibility and public health benefits of contactless delivery. Starship Technologies has identified college campuses as important strategic markets in a highly competitive delivery paradigm and shifting regulatory considerations. There are many everyday delivery tasks that can be eliminated for military, healthcare, government and business campus environments. Starship already has robots on the campuses of Arizona State University, Purdue University, George Mason University, and Northern Arizona University. Since its launch, all campuses have increased the number of robots, dining options, and hours of operation to meet the high demand for the service.
While the number of robots deployed on campuses is not extra-ordinary, the value to the Starship is remarkable. In many ways, colleges are the perfect test bed for delivery robots. Students tend to live well within a 30-minute delivery radius. Integration with meal plans, which is the model governing the SDSU rollout, helps ensure a ready customer base, and participating universities are easily wooed by the allure of being a forward-thinking institution with Silicon Valley connections (Starship is headquartered in the SF-Bay Area). Campuses also offer an exceptional proof of concept for a variety of Starship's constituents, from investors to prospective customers to regional regulatory bodies that are approaching robot delivery with appropriate caution.
Halfway through 2021, Starship announced that it had repeatedly set delivery records in its campus deployments during the pandemic. "I hadn't even heard of robot delivery before I started school, and now I don't see a future without it," said a student at the Mid-Western campus of Bowling Green State University. “I'd be perfectly happy to have a robot deliver a lot more things because it would save me so much time. Now that I am graduating, I will really miss the convenience and seeing the robots on campus everyday [and] I wish I could take one with me," she said.
That sort of attitude bodes well for companies like Starship, which are not just proofing technology but also training a new generation of adopters. Other autonomous delivery companies have adopted similar tacks. Another company called Flytrex, made recent headlines by offering food delivery via drone at a golf course in North Dakota. The access-limited space permits management to collect waivers from golfers, which allows Flytrex to avoid strict FAA regulations when operating over public areas.
These delivery testbeds, while good for short term adoption and product refinement, some believe are not sufficient to sustain these delivery companies. For widespread adoption to occur, automation firms still need to tackle the issue of local regulatory hurdles and more important - need to appreciate the power of the labor unions. Companies like Starship (either out of prudence or because they do not have deep enough pockets) have avoided the delivery potential of Uber and Bird, which left local regulators scrambling to react and have opted instead for a more methodical rollout. Time will tell.
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