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Robots to Deliver Food on College Campuses

Delivery company Grubhub Inc. and Russian tech company Yandex N.V. are teaming up to use robots to deliver food on college campuses as automation grows in a sector turbocharged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The companies announced that Grubhub will deploy the suitcase-size rovers built by Yandex to some of the 250 colleges across the U.S. that the former already operates in. Financial terms of the partnership have not been disclosed.

Grubhub cited the cost savings it will get by eliminating the delivery workers from the equation as a potential benefit from the deal with Yandex. “We’re excited to offer these cost effective, scalable, and quick food ordering and delivery capabilities to colleges and universities across the country that are looking to adapt to students’ unique dining needs,” said Brian Madigan, vice president of corporate and campus partners at Grubhub, in a statement.

The Yandex partnership is Grubhub’s first try into robotic food deliveries. Grubhub has focused on college delivery in recent years and it acquired a technology platform custom designed for campus use in 2018. Madigan said Grubhub considered using robots for deliveries a few years ago, but at the time the technology wasn’t ready. As the pandemic boosted both deliveries and the desire for less human interaction, some of the campuses Grubhub works with began asking about robot deliveries. “Momentum for automation picked up over the last year and the technology is much more advanced now,” Madigan said.

Grubhub selected Yandex as its partner after looking at its experience with delivery bots in Russia. Grubhub didn’t disclose which campuses would be the first to get the robots.

Yandex said its delivery robots can navigate pavements, pedestrian areas, and crosswalks slightly faster than the speed of an average pedestrian. They have the capacity to carry as much as 44 pounds of goods and can reach campus areas not accessible by car. “Such functionality enables the robots to handle delivery tasks traditionally performed by people and provides efficient last-mile logistics automation,” Yandex said.

This is how it will work. After an order is placed, a six-wheeled autonomous rover makes its way to the restaurant, picks up the food, and then delivers it to a specific location where the user unlocks its hatch through the Grubhub app. The rovers have been delivering orders from local restaurants in Ann Arbor, Michigan as part of a trial since April. They have also been tested in recent years to deliver food, groceries, and documents on the snowy streets of Moscow.

Food delivery services started to automate parts of their operations as more and more people rely on them during the pandemic. Earlier this year, DoorDash Inc. acquired robotics startup Chowbotics, whose technology can whip up salads and poke bowls.

There were also companies that have used robotic deliveries in trials and smaller rollouts. Starship Technologies Inc. has been expanding its delivery on U.S. college campuses while Nuro LLC’s robots have been shuttling food, fresh linens, and personal protective equipment during the pandemic.

“Globally, we see growing demand for all kinds of on-demand delivery services,” said Artem Fokin, head of business development at Yandex’s Self-Driving Group, which develops autonomous vehicles. “The pandemic didn’t start this trend, but it certainly accelerated it.” Apps typically earn money by charging restaurants a percentage of the value of orders, as well as by charging consumers a service fee. They then dip into those earnings to pay drivers, their biggest expense. Delivery robots promise to limit the human element and lower some costs. “Robots don’t need lunch breaks, there are no high turnover issues, and they are easy to manage,” Fokin said. “Customers are also excited to see them. They are a novelty.” College campuses have been an early testing ground for autonomous rover makers because they often cover a smaller and private geographic area that is easier to control and the bots don’t have to interact with cars or other larger vehicles.

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