The University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of 20 schools across the country with food-delivering robots rolling around its campus. Formally called Starships, the six-wheelers with an orange flag waving above began navigating around campus in 2019 to deliver food right to students' dorms. Students can use the Starship app connected with the university’s dining service to get freshly-made meals delivered straight to them in times of inclement weather, in the middle of studying or when feeling especially lazy.
"The most successful thing thus far with Starship has been the convenience and options it offers students," explained Peter Testory, director of dining and culinary services for University Housing. "We knew that delivery was something that students wanted and have grown up with, and we also knew we didn't have the staff to support a delivery service. So, this was a win-win for all involved."
Starships are programmed to play songs as students open up the bot to get their food. They are seen as cute "creatures" for students to pass by on the way to classes, and there has even been merchandise made with an image of the bot embroidered on a sweatshirt.
"When I first came to UW-Madison, I was so confused about the Starships,” said UW-Madison sophomore Sarah Scheetz. “Now when I see them, they instantly put a smile on my face. They've become a part of our life around campus."
Due to the weather conditions in Madison, the Starship system will sometimes temporarily shut down. Testory explained that when it's snowing heavily enough to cause issues for pedestrians, that's usually their cue to shut down the system until the weather clears up.
"We typically wait for campus to get the sidewalks cleared and for the snow to stop before we resume service,” said Testory. “This process has worked out really well, and we also don't want our robots to get in the way of snow removal from the sidewalks. The robots have different sets of wheels for snow that Starship installs in the winter."
Testory also said that when the occasional robot gets stuck in the snow, students typically come to its rescue to push it out. If any dining staff are nearby, they will also assist the robots in times of trouble.
The robots are high-tech, built with multiple sensors and twelve cameras to ensure it stays on the correct path without hitting any obstacles. They travel four miles per hour and are entirely battery-powered, with charge lasting for a full day of delivery. Each robot is capable of fitting at least three bags of groceries inside and is equipped with a cup holder to ensure there is no drink spillage.
Currently, the university has around 30 robots in its fleet, according to Testory. Based on delivery numbers, UW-Madison may acquire more, but for now, the 30 Badger Starships will continue to deliver meals to students.