Field Report: Starship Delivery Robots a Hit at Purdue University

Purdue University Mitchell Daniels gets an up-close look at a Starship mobile delivery robot. Image: Starship Technologies

November 06, 2019      

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Although the service is still in its early stages, officials at Starship Technologies said their most recent deployment of its mobile delivery robots at Purdue University has been successful.

The company has deployed a fleet of 30 robots at Purdue, which to date is the largest university campus to offer automated delivery of the company’s mobile robots. During the early stages, Starship partnered with a handful of local restaurants to offer delivery of food items and drinks to a limited area of the campus.

“We are working to add more restaurants to our list and to expand our delivery area,” said Sandra Soolate, Starship’s head of business delivery. Though there are no immediate plans to do so, Soolate said she expects the Starship robots to deliver non-food items like books, technical supplies, etc.

Students outside of the delivery zone can still use the service – they often go to the nearest edge of the service area and wait for the robots to appear, Soolate said. “You can see them lined up at the boundaries.”

A delivery journey

To use the service, users open the Starship Deliveries app, choosing from among items from the available merchants. Communications go through 4G or Wi-Fi wireless, using one of two overlapping telecom carriers that offers the strongest available signal.

After placing the order, a customer receives an alert regarding the estimated delivery time – an update is sent if the order is delayed for some reason. Customers can also watch in real time as the robot makes its journey to them, via an interactive map. The robot first goes to a designated exit door at the participating restaurant, waits for the order to be placed inside and locked, then travels autonomously to the destination. Once the robot arrives, a customer receives an alert and can then meet and unlock the robot through the app.

Starship Mobile Robot George Mason University

Mobile robots can traverse sidewalks and curbs autonomously, even in rain and snow. Source: Starship Technologies

The robots travel primarily on sidewalks, crossing streets at designated locations when necessary, using ramps or “stepping up” on the curb to access the next sidewalk. All pickups at merchants and deliveries to customers are made outside.

The robots use a combination of machine learning, artificial intelligence and sensors to travel on sidewalks and navigate around obstacles. The computer vision-based navigation helps the robots to map their environment to the nearest inch. Soolate said the delivery area was mapped before the service launched. The machine learning, AI and sensors are also used to remap the area on a daily basis, if needed due to events such as new construction or road closures.

The delivery robots can cross streets, climb curbs (but not a flight of stairs), travel at night and operate in inclement weather, including rain, snow and ice, all of which afflict the Purdue campus at times. If a bicyclist or another obstruction moves suddenly into its path, the robot can stop “immediately,” said Soolate. The company tracks robots at all times to ensure they are on their routes and to protect them from being stolen or tampered with.

Starship officials said delivery usually takes just a matter of minutes, depending on the menu items ordered and the distance the robot must travel. Soolate said restaurants that are busy, or high delivery demand, can also lengthen the delivery times for the robots.

starship technologies campus delivery university of pittsburgh

In addition to Purdue, Starship has deployed to the University of Pittsburgh, George Mason University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Image: Starship Technologies

Each robot can carry up to 20 pounds, the equivalent of about three shopping bags of goods. If someone orders more than the robot can carry, such as several coffees or a lot of food for a group study session, multiple robots will be dispatched for the order.

To ensure hot food stays hot and cold food stays cold, the mobile robots have interior insulated compartments as well as carriers for drinks.

However, robots will only pick up from one restaurant at a time. So if someone wants a coffee from Starbucks (one of the two campus-based Starbucks is participating) and a food item from Cozi (another participating restaurant, across the street from the Starbucks), two robots will be dispatched, Soolate said.

The charge is $1.99 per delivery, and customers can pay via credit card, debit card, or Boiler Express – an account that can be used for purchases around the Purdue campus. The robots operate from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m., and can fully charge the self-contained, Starship-made interior battery during downtime, but they can also operate all day without a recharge.

Starship receives a revenue share from the restaurant for each order, although Soolate declined to provide the percentage. The revenues have the company close to profitability, Soolate added, though she declined to be more specific. She said she expects profitability to come as the company expands its service with more participating restaurants (and perhaps other merchants) at Purdue and other participating U.S. college campuses, including the University of Pittsburgh, George Mason University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If warranted, Starship will add to its fleet of robots at Purdue. However, the company doesn’t have a specified date to make this evaluation of demand or of the success (or lack thereof) of the program. But Soolate said the Starship mobile delivery programs have a history of success.

Purdue was chosen as one of the early sites for campus deliveries because it is a “contained” campus – the university is less spread out than many others – and as a university with strong engineering and related disciplines, it has students and faculty that welcome new, innovative technology, Soolate said. The university’s large (43,000) student and faculty population was another factor in the selection.

Expansion planned

The company is also working to add more college campuses, with plans for 100 within the next year, according to Soolate. She was leaving the Purdue campus after a couple of weeks to work with universities in England on delivery services. The company’s U.S. team will continue to work to expand operations on the Purdue campus, as well as with other current and planned U.S. university operations. Earlier this year, the company announced raising $40 million in Series A funding to help fund its expansion plans.

Starship Technologies operates commercially on a daily basis around the world. Its robots have traveled over 350,000 miles, crossed 4 million streets and completed over 100,000 autonomous deliveries since launching the service in 2016.