The little black-and-white robots, each looking like a cross between a Mars rover and a beer cooler, lined up in front of a low concrete wall in the middle of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.
They displayed no signs of activity, except for a thin strip of blue-and-gold lights at the back pulsing softly.
Suddenly, two robots sprung to life, their small chassis smoothly rolling a conveyor belt towards the East Student Center to collect and deliver food.
But there was a problem. The fire alarm had just gone off in the building, and students were pouring out. The robots kept going, weaving and choking their way towards the doors. Finally they stopped, pushed in by the dozens of students waiting to go back inside.
Some students poked their feet in front of the self-driving “Starship” robots in the hope of provoking a response. A young woman who was in the path of one of them and had her back to him didn’t even notice him.
A year after starting a pilot program at UIC, the robots, each weighing about 70 pounds, have become part of everyday life on campus. Only visitors who have been out of college for a long time could shake and shake their heads in disbelief.
“They’re like little robot friends,” said Ben Glatz, 21, who used the service last semester when he didn’t want to interrupt his studies to go get food.
Students can expect to see more of the robots soon — there are 20 of them, but that number could grow to 30 — as they make a much wider swath of campus after the Chicago City Council approved an ordinance last month to expand the program. Currently limited to an area bounded by Halsted Street, Ogden Avenue, Roosevelt Road and the Eisenhower Expressway, the robots will be serviced by a newly opened academic and residential complex that is home to 600 students – and cross-city streets to do it. Although the robots do not serve the public and serve only UIC students or staff, the school’s extensive medical campus will now also be within range.
Gimmick or upgrade?
But is the demand there? And aren’t robots really just a gimmicky service that humans on bikes and in cars can perform just as well?
It depends on who you ask.
Liam Lacey, 21, a communications major at UIC, said he has never been tempted to use the robots.
“Not at all – not even a little. It is a five minute walk to the dining hall. It gets me out of my room,” Lacey said.
And when he could have used one — when he got COVID-19 last year — his dorm room was out of range. Still, he said he could see how robots could be “extremely useful” with an extended program for someone who can’t leave their home.
“A lot of students don’t have time to go out to get food or they don’t have time to make food. So it’s easier to order,” said Liz Lusk, 22, an architecture student who said she had not used the service but had friends who had.
For many students, the robots are still an amusing distraction: They like to stand in front of the wonderfully behaving machines and watch as they stop, wait and then continue on only when’ n safe to do so.
There have been no cases of vandalism or other serious mischief, said Charles Farrell, spokesman for UIC. The robots deliver around 100 deliveries a week, including from on-campus restaurants such as Dunkin’ and Panda Express.
“If it is raised – and that is not something he anticipates – it will send a signal to the hub, and it has a horn and a siren, and it will [tell] it’s the person who picks it up to put it down,” Farrell said. “It’s not going to go quietly.”
With the wider landscape, the robots could deliver non-prescription drugs from a convenience store on campus, Farrell said. And, no, there are no plans to allow alcohol delivery.
‘It doesn’t make sense to use a vehicle to deliver a burrito’
Starship, an Estonian company, has about 2,000 robots operating in six countries, a spokesman said. Deliveries are usually made within a 2-to-3 mile range.
“We believe that the future of supply will be multimodal. “Starship robots can operate day or night in a variety of weather conditions, and it doesn’t make sense to use a vehicle to deliver a burrito,” spokeswoman Annie Handrick said in a statement.
The robots have been cruising around the University of Houston campus since late 2019. The fleet of 30 robots makes about 300 deliveries a day.
“In the beginning, there was definitely a novelty aspect to it, and people were just ordering a cake pop or a bottle of water,” said Charles Pereira, vice president of operations at the University of Houston for food service company Chartwells Higher Ed. . .
The robots cover about 85% of the campus and offer a distinct advantage over other delivery services, he said.
“These robots will be idle across different parts of the campus. … When an order is placed, the technology will take the robot closest to the restaurant and send that robot. … Also, they’re small. So they can navigate intersections and boulevards that a vehicle can’t navigate,” Pereira said.
Back at UIC, as one of the robots got stuck in the crowd outside the East Student Center recently during the fire alarm, student Iza Kopec, 18, looked pitifully at the machine.
“It’s so confusing,” Kopec said.
But the robot was not confused. He only waited until the crowds had dispersed – it was a false alarm. A Panda Express employee approached him, opened the lid of the robot and placed a hot order inside. A few seconds later, the robot’s six wheels whirred as it headed for the lecture hall about three minutes away.
He stopped at his destination, and student Armando Faire activated the lock from his phone. The sweet smell of orange chicken wafted from the robot.
“Hello. … This is your delivery. … Thank you,” said the robot.
“It’s much easier for me. I get to sit here, waiting for my class, and the food is delivered to me,” said Fraire, who was waiting for a math lecture to begin.
He paid about $1.99 for the delivery charge. No tip?
“No, it’s a robot,” he said. “Come on!”