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Food delivery robots target college towns

Illustration of a line of delivery robots with food items on their backs
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

College students may soon have to share their campus sidewalks with thousands of 6-wheeled robots ready to deliver their dinners.

Driving the news: Food delivery company Starship Technologies announced plans in late August to deploy cooler-sized, self-driving robots to 100 U.S. college campuses by 2022.

The big picture: Even though autonomous food delivery is still a developing concept, Starship is targeting college campuses, where students typically have little kitchen access beyond mini-fridges and microwaves. Demand for food delivery is high, and how the food is delivered is of less importance.

Starship plans to deploy 25–50 robots per school within the next 2 years, meaning as many as 5,000 robots could be moseying around campus grounds by 2021. They're already making deliveries at George Mason University and Northern Arizona University. And they're set to deploy at Purdue University in Indiana after Labor Day. Next up: the University of Pittsburgh.

Where it stands: Delivery sidewalk bots in metropolitan areas have encountered regulatory hurdles in the past. San Francisco temporarily banned them in 2017, only again issuing permits this year.

  • Starship’s college-town fleets can bypass typical regulatory roadblocks from city councils. With a university's permission, vehicle startups can run on campus sidewalks and streets. 
  • Testing the robots in a college environment gives companies data to navigate other, more dangerous settings like high-volume street crossings.

Our thought bubble via Axios' emerging technology reporter Kaveh Waddell, "Campuses are often pedestrian-oriented, which can make car deliveries difficult. But sidewalks can also become busy and chaotic, which can make life hard for a robot."

What they're doing: Several companies, including Amazon, have invested in and experimented with these small-wheeled robots in the streets.

  • San Francisco gave Postmates a permit in August to test its delivery robots, TechCrunch reports.
  • Berkeley-based company Kiwi launched its own miniature robot in 2018 for UC Berkeley students.
  • Amazon rolled out its sidewalk bot in January, by which Prime members could have food delivered. It is currently testing bots by simulation and on sidewalks in Seattle, according to TechCrunch.
  • Domino’s will test custom driverless carriers for pizza deliveries in Houston later this year.

Yes, but: Food service jobs are a staple in college towns. 43% of students in college full-time had a job in 2017. The number nearly doubled for part-time students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Growing fleets of sidewalk robots could disrupt a workforce dependent on relieving college tuition and living expenses.

The bottom line: As long as the market for food delivery continues to boom, the nascent autonomous food delivery business only has room to grow.

Watch: Click here for an amusing student reaction.

Editor's note: This piece was corrected to show deliveries have started at Northern Arizona University (not University of Northern Arizona).