Years back, it would appear an illusion to have machines perform human tasks like helping to deliver messages. It would also appear unimaginable to think artificial intelligence robots will deliver foods to users, more like a stuff of science fiction?
Well, that fiction is now in our faces as the reality.
Reports say hundreds of little and knee high robots are now navigating college campuses and even some city sidewalks in the United States, the UK delivering at least 4 large pizzas and other food stuffs.
Yeah, we expected that.
Before the Coronavirus pandemic hit the world, robots were being tested in limited numbers but with the associated restrictions caused by the COVID-19 lockdown, the related labour shortages and an increasing preference for contactless delivery has made their deployment move on an upward spiral.
“We saw demand for robot usage just go through the ceiling,” said Alastair Westgarth, the CEO of Starship Technologies, which recently completed its 2 millionth delivery. “I think demand was always there, but it was brought forward by the pandemic effect.”
SpaceX reusable launch system, Starship boasts of more than 1,000 robots in its fleet, an exponential increase from a paltry 250 robots it had in 2019, with hundred soon to be deployed. Starship will be delivering food supplies to at least 20 United States campuses with 25 more to added soon. The firm also operates on sidewalks in Milton Keynes, England; Modesto, California; and the company’s hometown of Tallin, Estonia.
The robots though have varying designs, with some having four wheels , while some having six but they all generally use cameras, sensors, GPS and at times laser scanners to navigate sidewalks and autonomously cross streets, moving around at 5 mph.
As a robot get to their stated destinations, customers receiving the food supplies will have to type in a code into their phones to allow them open the lid and take their food.
But in all these, the robots have various limitations: they are electric and must recharge regularly or else they shut down. They are also slow and do generally stay within a small, pre-mapped radius. They are also inflexible and haven’t been laced with the AI induced mind of their own yet, For example, a customer can’t instruct a robot to leave the food at the balcony or outside the door and it obliges. Some big cities with crowded sidewalks, like New York, Beijing and San Francisco, aren’t welcoming them.
While trying to make a case for the robots in spite of their limitations, Bill Ray, an analyst with the consulting firm Gartner, believes the robots make a lot of sense on corporate or college campuses, or in newer communities with wide sidewalks.
“In the places where you can deploy it, robot delivery will grow very quickly,” Ray said.
He added that there have been little or no-existent reports of issues with the robots, except an isolated case whence some kids surrounded one of the robots and tried to confuse it.
A robot had in 2019 in Pittsburg University blocked a wheelchair user from accessing a ramp, prompting starship to briefly halt the services, with the University authorities later announcing that deliveries resumed immediately Starship addressed the problem.
Patrick Sheck, a junior at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, says he gets deliveries from a Starship robot three or four times a week as he’s leaving class.
“The robot pulls up just in time for me to get some lunch,” Sheck said. Bowling Green and Starship charge $1.99 plus a service fee for each robot delivery.
Rival Kiwibot, with headquarters in Los Angeles and Medellin, Columbia, says it now has 400 robots making deliveries on college campuses and in downtown Miami.
According to a data and consulting firm, NPD, the delivery in the United States rose to 66 percent in the year ending in June, adding that delivery rise could remain even after the ease of the pandemic as customers have gotten inclined to the convenience.
Brendan Witcher, a technology analyst with the consulting firm Forrester, says though it is okay to be excited about the robotic home delivery innovations, but robots have to ultimately prove their advantages in some way.
“It’s possible that we see this emerge into something else,” he said. “But it’s the right time and place for companies considering robots to test them and learn from them and do their own evaluation.”