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Hungry? If you’re at the University of Utah, have a robot bring you a snack

Rakel Davis
/
KUER

It was lunchtime on a busy Friday at the University of Utah. MiKo Nielson needed food but didn’t have the time or energy to go anywhere.

But Nielson had another option — food delivered by an autonomous robot.

“My whole office uses the [robots] if we're kind of lazy and don't want to walk to the Union up the hill,” said Nielson, who works in the marketing department in the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion office at the U. The offices are about a 10-minute walk from on-campus food options.

First introduced to campus in April 2022, the robots look like giant white AirPods cases with six wheels. Each weighs 40 pounds, is battery-powered and able to zoom around at about 4 miles per hour. Customers can order from different on-campus dining options through an app, and the robots will deliver their food to a map pin.

The robot carried Nielson’s order of nachos — at what amounted to a brisk walking pace — from the Union Food Court a quarter mile down to the front of the John R. Park Building. An app notification and a simple swipe later, the robot unlocked and Nielson got her nachos. The snack robot didn’t have any issues this time, but sometimes they struggle when unique obstacles are in the way.

“It's fun to watch it when the security’s parked there and it doesn't know how to get around,” Nielson said. “And we're standing here watching it, and we're like, ‘come on, you can do it, we promise.’ Other than that, the robots are great.”

A Starship Technologies robot on an important snack run on the campus of the University of Utah, April 13, 2022.
Brian Albers
/
KUER
A Starship Technologies robot on an important snack run on the campus of the University of Utah, April 13, 2022.

Red Nardos, the campus marketing specialist for Starship Technologies, said their robots have 360-degree sensors and are equipped with obstacle detection. The more deliveries they complete, the more they learn.

“You'll see the robots zooming around, and they gather that information through their sensors,” Nardos said. “They understand which paths are the most optimal [and] have the least amount of traffic … to get the order to that specific drop location as fast as possible.”

Thirty-five college campuses across the U.S. have the robots, Nardos said, and students have adapted to them almost like they’re a dog on campus.

“If they see it, like, kind of tipped over on the edge, students will literally help pick it up and put it back,” she said.

There are no robot adoptions, however.

In case someone tries to steal one of the robots or purposefully gets in the way, Nardos said the robot will use voice commands to politely ask that the person move or to put it down. If these commands fail, then the robot will use its alarm system, which notifies on-campus employees who care for and maintain the robots.

“This doesn’t happen very often as people usually leave it alone after the voice commands,” Nardos said.

Several of the U's snack robots awaiting orders on campus, May 3, 2022.
Brian Albers
/
KUER
Several of the U's snack robots awaiting orders on campus, May 3, 2022.

Dallas Balzly, director of operations for Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services, said there are three people at the University of Utah who handle day-to-day robot operations.

“We have very minimal technical difficulties,” Balzly said. “They are built for all weather conditions so we don’t see any complications there [and] the Starship onsite team does all maintenance if needed.”

He added that occasionally campus employees do have to help a robot out of a tricky spot.

“As an example, the robot is trying to go around an obstacle and a wheel falls off the sidewalk in a hole [so] we would have to assist him in this instance,” Balzly said.

As Starship’s robot fleet expands, Nardos believes they are becoming an integral part of campus communities everywhere.

“Not just as a food delivery service, but it becomes a whole new branch of the university that the students have an affinity for,” she said. “… Whether rain or snow or sunshine, the robots are always there for students.”

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