Food Delivery Robots are on the Rise

Have you ever wandered down the street without paying much attention to your surroundings, then suddenly looked down to notice a robot zooming past your feet?

Unless you’re a student at UC Berkeley or one of the dozen other US universities that have introduced this unconventional mode of food delivery, the answer is probably no. But that looks set to change within the next few years, as companies continue to push for autonomous delivery.

The demand for convenience food is skyrocketing. The amount of people in the US using food delivery applications is estimated to increase 21% this year from 2018 and to continue growing within the coming years. 

Yet despite their popularity, companies like Uber Eats are in dire need of innovation. The use of food delivery services for short distances and small orders are inefficient and expensive. To avoid making sales that aren’t worth their time, most businesses impose a minimum order size – but this can be annoying for customers.

Autonomous delivery: an expanding market 

That’s where autonomous delivery solutions come in. Due to their low weight and slow speed, food delivery robots already proved themselves highly efficient. This makes them the perfect choice for low-value or short-distance food deliveries, which don’t make financial sense when completed by cars.

Companies seem to have taken note of the facts – the food delivery market is expanding rapidly. According to a recent report, the market size is predicted to reach $34 million by 2024, representing a CAGR of over 19% from 2018. Not bad for something that most people in the world don’t know exists.

This estimate may be modest – it’s difficult to accurately predict such a new and rapidly-evolving sector. As more consumers want convenience food which can be delivered to their door and the obstacle of minimum order sizes is removed, the demand for food delivery robots may turn out to be even higher than is currently expected.

The majority of the market is currently centered in the USA, where most major food delivery robots companies are based and the bulk of trials and pilot schemes for delivery robots are taking place. However, it’s easy to see that the market size would grow quickly if these pilots turned out to be successful and the robots were introduced in other countries too.

Food delivery robots: what they are and how they work

But let’s step back for a second. What exactly are food delivery robots?

Put simply, a food delivery robot is an automaton on wheels that delivers meals directly to consumers. Its function is the same as the vehicles we are more accustomed to seeing transport food – such as bicycles, motorbikes or cars – but delivery bots are much more compact.

Generally, the machines are knee-high or smaller, and they typically weigh between 50 and 100 pounds. They are also ideally suited for short distances; currently, most can only carry items within a radius of a few kilometers.

The food delivery process works in a way that is familiar to most people, with just a few subtle changes. Consumers order food online or through their smartphone, then food establishments receive those orders and prepare them.

The main difference is that the food is then given to a robot. This is where things get more complicated and some additional security measures are necessary.

Each robot contains an insulated storage compartment, which ensures the food remains safe and at the correct temperature. The compartment remains locked throughout the journey – presumably to prevent any unwanted interferences by hungry pedestrians – and can then be unlocked by the consumer upon arrival with the use of the smartphone app.

Pro and Cons of food delivery robots at their actual stage

Some companies also allow consumers to track the journey and location in real-time from their phone application. This prevents the usual frustration of not knowing when your order will arrive, a no-no for customers who prioritize speed and convenience. It also potentially adds an aspect of gamification to the process.

Although those within the industry use the term ‘autonomous delivery’, most of the robots that have been piloted recently are only semi-autonomous. For instance, Kiwibots are currently monitored by workers in Colombia as they complete their delivery until full autonomy can be achieved.

The use of remote workers to monitor and control multiple robots simultaneously is no doubt an improvement in efficiency compared to loads of individual drivers. However, it’s doubtful that so-called autonomous delivery services can truly take-off without full autonomy being achieved.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. A welcome advantage of delivery bots is their environmental friendliness. It’s easy to see that the use of a lightweight robot is much more energy-efficient than a car (estimated to weigh around 3,000 pounds on average) for the purpose of delivering a single pizza.

They are also electrically powered, thus further increasing cost-efficiency whilst simultaneously reducing emissions.

However, the benefits of food delivery robots go beyond consumer convenience and cost-efficiency. They can also help people with disabilities or mobility issues to access food and goods. This may be particularly useful as many countries struggle to combat an aging population and a large number of elderly people trapped in their homes.

Thanks to Financial Times

Food delivery robot companies & start-ups

Claiming to be the ‘most advanced live robotic system on the planet’ is Kiwibot, a food delivery robot service that debuted on the UC Berkeley campus. Kiwi boasts technology which is fast, cheap, and uses a ‘cutting-edge behavioral neural network’. Kiwi delivery robots have since expanded from Berkeley to other elite universities, and the startup currently has plans to expand to 100 more college campuses.

Why focus on colleges? University campuses are the perfect fit for food delivery robots due to their small scale and the propensity of students to demand convenience food. Another benefit is that the sidewalks on college campuses are private, which results in fewer regulatory issues; most companies have struggled to secure the permit necessary to operate on public sidewalks.

Also focusing on the student market, Starship Technologies is a food delivery robot company started by Skype co-founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis. After previously being trialed in 100 cities, their service was launched at George Mason University in 2019.

Naturally, conventional food delivery companies want to get in on the action too. In 2017, the food delivery service DoorDash joined started using robots made by the startup Marble for a pilot program in San Francisco. Also, they announced plans to trial driverless vehicles.

Another food delivery service company looking to extend into the space is Postmates, which launched a food delivery robot called Serve in 2018. Serve is unique for the human-like appearance of its robot, which has been likened to Wall-E due to its large eyes.

Although robots were banned from pedestrian streets in San Francisco in 2017, Serve was recently the first company to secure a sidewalks permit.

It’s a sign that the tide might be about to change when it comes to food delivery robots.

Major supermarkets such as Walmart are also experimenting with driverless cars, suggesting that their utility could go beyond restaurants and extend to supermarkets.

Clearly, the majority of the growth and innovation so far has stemmed from the USA and Silicon Valley. Likewise, the headquarters of the companies and the locations of their pilot schemes have been centered in California.

Yet the effort to promote these robots is decidedly global. Starship Technologies was created by Estonians and Kiwibot by Colombians. It’s likely that these companies will try to expand into other nations if they can find success in California and the USA first.

Conclusion

However, major issues remain before food delivery robots can hit the mainstream. Although San Francisco has given a permit for one company to test its pilot scheme, it remains unclear whether other cities would follow suit and whether the technology can be scaled to become both safe and autonomous.

Furthermore, the majority of consumers order directly through restaurants rather than third-party applications or companies; yet these food establishments can’t afford to trial robots or driverless cars themselves. This calls for a serious reexamination of business models.

There are lots of questions that still need to be answered. Will robots ever fully replace human delivery drivers and put them out of work, or will the two exist side by side? Is the future going to be more centered on tiny delivery robots or driverless cars? Will robots ever become fully autonomous or continue to be manually controlled remotely?

Yet while the supposed ‘autonomy’ of these food delivery robots may be questionable, the potential of these robots isn’t.

So maybe next time you’re walking about and lost in your thoughts, you’d do well to keep your eyes peeled.

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