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Friday, September 29, 2023

Food delivery robots can now be seen on the north end of campus, delivering dining hall food to students, faculty and staff.

Starship delivery robots indicate groundbreaking food delivery tech advancing into Madison

Students have been using food delivery apps such as Uber Eats, Grubhub, Eat Street and many others for a while. With a few seconds on a phone, food can be delivered to the door from various restaurants located here in Madison. All you have to do is pay a delivery fee and sometimes higher prices for food and your meal arrives at your doorstep. 

Food delivery has now reached a new level here in Madison with the addition of self-driving delivery robots. University Housing has launched a program that allows dining hall food to be delivered in the same fashion as common delivery apps. The big difference is that people are not the ones delivering the food, but self-driving robots. 

The University Housing and Dining is working with the company Starship, who are the creators of the new self-driving robots. The company was founded in 2014 and its headquarters are located in San Francisco, California. These robots weigh no more than 100 pounds and can carry items within a four-mile radius of their origin. With advanced programming and electric-run motors, these robots are now being used on various college campuses besides our own. 

According to University Housing, users can just open the Starship Deliveries app (available on iOS and Android), choose the items they would like from one of the dining halls, and drop a pin by selecting the location on the service map where they want their food to be delivered. The app allows users to watch the robot’s entire journey to them through an interactive map. Once the robot arrives, the user will receive an alert, and they can meet the robot and unlock it through the app. 

The delivery usually takes just a matter of minutes, depending on the menu items ordered and the distance the robot must travel. Robots can carry up to 20 pounds of goods – the equivalent of about three shopping bags of groceries.

By now, almost every student has seen the little robots rolling around with the bright orange flag on top.  Students at first glance were confused and surprised by a robot moving along sidewalks and crossing streets —  it is weird to see a bunch of robots moving about sidewalks and waiting alongside other pedestrians at traffic lights, after all.

Yet, the robots sometimes get stuck (even multiple times per trip) and often are not able to move around certain obstacles. Now, three months after being introduced, these robots are in southeast and their AI (artificial intelligence) has greatly improved. They now cross streets faster, though still with some difficulty (missing traffic lights), and can navigate through more environments. 

If a robot does get stuck, they can be remotely controlled by a human to help, but overall the robots are mainly self-driving. These robots even talk if you help them when stuck or if you are blocking its path. 

The new technology being used with there’s robots is very promising and holds a lot of potential for the future. Right now, Madison is in the middle of the advancement of a new form of food delivery. Soon, these robots will become fast and smart enough to make these deliveries extremely efficient and easy to use. 

If these robots become faster to use than walking to a dining hall and eating, robots will completely take away the need to travel to dining halls for food anymore. Potentially, restaurants on State Street could take advantage of this technology, and food delivery in Madison could be groundbreaking. (I mean, robots delivering Chipotle or Qdoba to your front door seems more appealing than dining hall food.)

Despite the benefits of these robots, there are a few downsides as well. When first launched in November, these robots were only able to deliver to lakeshore locations and had some difficulty navigating. Now, however, from lakeshore to southeast, these robots are everywhere and are actively making deliveries. So, the time estimate can take much longer if the robot runs into difficulties, sometimes even resulting in the delivery never making it to the user. 

Dining halls are usually efficient and allow for relatively fast dining experiences. These delivery robots are no faster than walking to a dining hall and grabbing a to-go container. Also, the idea of having dining hall food delivered is not very appealing to students currently. The reason food delivery apps are great is that restaurants that normally take a while to get to or eat can be delivered in a speedy manner. The demand for dining hall food is primarily freshman, and freshman dorms are located adjacent to dining halls. Thus, this new technology seems to only appeal to a small percentage of students. 

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They seem to move in spermatic fashion and can sometimes cause problems when walking to and from class. These robots also line up outside dining halls which can cause slight traffic. Furthermore, dining hall employees are now having to delegate their time to assist in these delivery orders. If a robot is late or backup happens when the dining hall is busy, food orders will become delayed.

The future is unknown with these robots and how they will impact the students and the community of Madison. Yet, dining halls are incorporating more advanced tech besides just the robots. At the Bean & Creamery locations in housing, ordering happens through a touch screen with pictures of every item and customizable options. 

Thus, it is safe to say that University Dining seems to be the testing ground for new technologies throughout the university. Hopefully, this is just the beginning and technology continues to advance around campus to make life more efficient for students and faculty. 

Anthony is a freshman studying Journalism. Do you think that the dining hall robots could lead to more efficient food delivery services in Madison? Send all comments to 

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