Robot 509 from Starship Technologies is both patient and skittish. The autonomous machine, which resembles a Yeti cooler crossed with a Waymo mini van, moves around like a mammal near the bottom of the food chain. It freezes up in crowds and, even when utterly alone, scoots forward in halting spurts, seemingly suspicious of fallen leaves.
A few days after Thanksgiving, Robot 509 ferries some cargo across the campus of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. It stops on a deserted road, waiting for about a minute before finally scooting across, then trundles over a stretch of pavement and some railroad track before coming to a full stop.
Rachael Haberstroh, a James Madison administrator whose office is a long walk from most of the campus’s cafes, comes over and taps on her phone. “It’s supposed to play me a song,” she says, watching skeptically as the entire top of the robot swings open. As 509 serenades her with Adele’s Easy on Me, she reaches in and grabs a large, iced Starbucks drink.
Robots designed for sidewalk deliveries have existed for years, drawing both suspicion—San Francisco banned them in 2017, before creating a program to allow some testing—and ridicule from those who see them as another Silicon Valley solution in search of a problem. Near-term expectations for all kinds of autonomous vehicles have fallen recently, after several years of unrealistically optimistic projections and a string of road fatalities. But sidewalk bots have begun to gain momentum in certain environments. A few thousand pedestrian-speed delivery robots are in operation, a figure that will at least triple in 2022 if the leading bot makers hit their goals.
One particularly promising market has been U.S. colleges, whose cloistered campuses provide an easier technical challenge than chaotic downtown business districts, and whose students make up an ideal customer base, given their constant hunger for both snacks and novelty.
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