Robots Invade College Campuses

No, it's not a Halloween horror movie. UT Austin's science experiment aims to find out if robots can coexist with humans on campus.
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  • Recent announcements in robotics show how hungry college students are the ultimate guinea pigs as the technology advances.
  • Grubhub and Starship Technologies partnered to bring robot food delivery to over 25 college campuses.
  • The University of Texas at Austin is launching a research project to study human-delivery robot interactions using remote robot monitoring, bot chaperoning, and human interviewing.

Scientists testing how robots can coexist with humans are turning to hungry college students to be their proverbial guinea pigs.

A spate of robotics experiments announced this month are cloaked in the promise of late-night snacks delivered directly to students' dorms.

First, online food-ordering and delivery company Grubhub and Starship Technologies, a company specializing in automated food delivery robots, announced they will expand robot delivery services to campuses across the country.

Then, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) announced they will unleash a network of delivery robots resembling dogs on campus early next year.

Will students suspect the robot's true task? Is this simply a precursor to a larger secret invasion of helpful delivery robots across the world?

Attack of the Friendly Campus Delivery Robots

College students might need to start tipping their robots instead of their delivery drivers for their midnight McDonald's study fuel.

Already offering their robot delivery service on several campuses, Grubhub and Starship Technologies plan to expand their mission.

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Their bots are currently delivering grub at the University of Kentucky; the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Wayne State University; Southern Methodist University, and Fairfield University. More locations are on the way.

According to the press release, more than 170,000 students at over 25 schools will also eventually have access to the Grubhub delivery robots.

Robot delivery solves the unique challenges of accessing hard-to-reach areas that come from operating on a college campus, said Adam Herbert, senior director of campus partnerships at Grubhub. With Starship's robots, students can enjoy a fun, new way to order their favorite meals right to their door — whether that be the library, their dorm, academic hall or another campus building.

According to the press release, more than 250 schools already partner with Grubhub to integrate meal plans with standard delivery and pickup.

There are over 2,000 Starship Technologies robots worldwide, and they can travel up to 4 mph and carry about three grocery bags of weight. They're also zero emission, have no fear of crossing the road, and have the weather persistence of the U.S. Postal Service through rain and snow.

Fairfield University is thrilled to partner with Starship and Grubhub — our official mobile food-ordering and delivery partner — on this innovative robot delivery initiative, said Matt Dinnan, assistant vice president of auxiliary services at Fairfield University. As the first college in the Northeast to roll out this technology, our campus is already buzzing with enthusiasm about the new robotic pickup and delivery service option that will no doubt enhance the student experience here at Fairfield.

Grubhub and Starship Technologies aren't the first to enter the campus robot delivery service. Kiwibot and Sodexo, food service and delivery providers, began their first venture at the University of California, Berkeley in 2018.

They have expanded their fleet to over 500 robots across 26 campuses, including Stanford University and Howard University.

The College Campus Delivery Robots Are Here to Stay. Can We Coexist?

It's clear the delivery robots' invasion of college campuses across the country is underway.

So UT Austin is launching a study to see how humans and delivery robots can coexist on campus. The five-year study will see what it takes to maintain a network of robots and adapt to student needs and interactions. A grant is helping university researchers create a campus robot delivery service, which is set to deploy in early 2023.

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However, these will be different from the compact cube Wall-E-style Grubhub bots. According to the press release, unlike commercial robot delivery services, the university's robots will help researchers understand and improve pedestrian-robot experiences.

UT Austin will use dog-like robots by Boston Dynamics and Unitree to deliver free items like wipes and hand sanitizer to students across campus via smartphone app ordering.

Robotic systems are becoming more ubiquitous, said Luis Sentis, a UT Austin professor and leader of the project. In addition to programming robots to perform a realistic task such as delivering supplies, we will be able to gather observations to help develop standards for safety, communication and behavior to allow these future systems to be useful and safe in our community.

The robots will travel in pairs while the research team monitors and remotely chaperones them across campus, allowing researchers to stop the robots if necessary. The team hopes to know where and how they should move about campus and how they'll coexist by interviewing people and observing interactions.

The study is part of UT Austin's Good Systems research challenge supported by Microsoft. The National Science Foundation recently granted $3.6 million to the research as part of UT Austin's six-year Living and Working with Robots project.