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Robots to deliver food, drinks at UNR


By María Palma

Starting this fall, Chartwells Higher Education, a contract foodservice management company, has partnered with Starship Technologies to roll out the tech company’s autonomous food delivery robots at the University of Nevada, Reno.

For now, the company is still preparing for the final launch of real-time food delivery from Nevada Dining vendors; a full fleet of approximately 20 robots is set to start delivery Aug. 23. 

Students, faculty and staff will be able to order food, drinks and snacks from a range of on-campus restaurants and cafés, while tracking them in real-time.

Dean Kennedy, executive director of Residential Life, Housing, and Food Services at UNR explained that the partnership started approximately a year ago. Part of what prompted them to bring this technology to campus was the increased need for contactless delivery due to the pandemic.

“We wanted to make sure that there were additional opportunities that individuals could get food without potentially having to wait in line or in a more dense environment, just for their own personal safety,” he said. “Starship Robots has relationships with other universities and colleges, and Chartwells, which is the dining provider, have had great experiences.”

The contract between Chartwells and Starship will last a year with automatic renewal, unless either side chooses not to do so.

These innovative robots are already operating in countries like the U.K., Estonia, Germany and Denmark, and on other university campuses across the country. UNR, however, is the first to bring this initiative to the state. 

“We have robots at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); University of California, Irvine; Oregon State University in Corvallis; Northern Arizona University; Arizona State University in Tempe… This is the first one in Nevada,” said Joshua Taylor, with Starship.

He also mentioned that the service is offered as part of the on-campus dining services to Chartwells. 

“UNR does not pay for the robots. They’re not funding it,” he said. “Starship maintains ownership of the robots, and then we charge a little delivery with every order in.”

Where they will be seen

For now, some robots are already in operation delivering coffee from Create, with an added fee  of $1.99, but more options will come after the summer break ends.

“We will have about eight different locations available. All of them will open on Aug. 23,” said Heidi Rich, marketing director for Nevada Dining. 

Those locations are Sierra Street Subs, Panera Bread, Peet’s Coffee, Las Trojes, The Habit Burger and many more, but “not the locations that are in the Joe Crowley Student Union that are independently operated,” Rich clarified.

She also said that they accept different payment options. 

“We do take credit and debit cards,” she added. “There is also an option for us to take Wolf bucks or food bucks, so they can put in their Wolf Card number and it will just deduct from their food box account.”

The robots operate within the map service area, which means university buildings and student housing only. 

Taylor said that “they don’t climb stairs or go inside buildings.” However, they perform well in rain and snow, go up curbs, can travel up to 4 mph, weigh 75 lbs. empty, and the delivery compartment can hold up to 22 lbs., or the equivalent of about three shopping bags of groceries.

“The robots are 99% autonomous” 

How do they travel autonomously? The robot uses a mixture of computer vision and GPS to pinpoint its exact location to the nearest inch.

It also has obstacle detection and a “situational awareness bubble” around it, similar to a robot vacuum–featuring 12 cameras, ultrasonic sensors, radars, neural networks and more. These features detect obstacles, whether a dog, a pedestrian or a cyclist. The robot will always stop at a safe distance.

To prevent theft and damage, the company has developed a detailed strategy.

The cargo hold remains locked until the robot reaches the customer and unlocks it through

their mobile phone. It also has sirens if picked up or tampered with.

“We kindly ask our campus community to be patient with Nevada Dining and our delivery robots as they continue to map and configure their service for our campus,” Rich said. “We look forward to our launch when they will be delivering from most of the Nevada Dining restaurant locations by Monday, Aug. 23.”

How to use Starship

To try the service, click on www.starship-unr.com or type in Starship Food Delivery into the App store. Students, faculty and staff can open the Starship Deliveries mobile app (iOS and Android), choose the items they would like from one of the available Nevada Dining locations, then select their location by dropping a pin on the campus map where they want their food delivered.

The app allows users to watch the robot’s journey in real-time 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.

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