The little black-and-white robots, each looking like a cross between a Mars rover and a beer cooler, lined up in front of a low concrete wall in the heart of the University of Illinois Chicago campus.
They displayed no signs of activity, except for a thin strip of blue-and-gold lights at the rear pulsing silently.
All of a sudden, two robots twitched to life, their little chassis rolling conveyor-belt smooth toward Student Center East for a food pickup and delivery.
But there was a problem. The fire alarm had just sounded in the building, and students were pouring out. The robots kept going, weaving and stuttering their way toward the doors. Finally they stopped, hemmed in by the dozens of students waiting to get back inside.
Some students jabbed their feet in front of the self-driving “Starship” robots in hopes of provoking a reaction. A young woman who was in the path of one of them and had her back to it didn’t even notice it.
A year after the start of a pilot program at UIC, the robots, each weighing about 70 pounds, have become a part of everyday life on campus. Only visitors long out of college might gawk and shake their heads in disbelief.
“They are like little robot friends,” said Ben Glatz, 21, who used the service last semester when he didn’t want to interrupt his studying to go get food.
Students can expect to see more of the robots soon — there are 20 of them, but that number could grow to 30 — as they make a far broader sweep of campus after the Chicago City Council last month approved an ordinance to expand the program. Currently confined to an area bound by Halsted Street, Ogden Avenue, Roosevelt Road and the Eisenhower Expressway, the robots will be allowed to serve a newly opened academic and residential complex housing 600 students — and cross city streets to do so. Although the robots are not servicing the public and only serve UIC students or staff, the school’s vast medical campus will now also be in range.
Gimmick or upgrade?
But is the demand there? And aren’t robots really just a gimmicky service that humans on bicycles and in cars can perform equally well?
It depends whom you ask.
Liam Lacey, 21, a communications major at UIC, said he’s never been tempted to use the robots.
“Not at all — not even a little bit. It’s a five-minute walk to the dining hall. It gets me out of my room,” Lacey said.
And when he could have used one — when he had COVID-19 last year — his dorm room was out of range. Still, he said he could see how robots could be “super useful” with an expanded program for someone unable to leave their home.
“A lot of students don’t have time to go out to get food or don’t have time to make food. So it’s easier to order,” said Liz Lusk, 22, an architecture student who said she hadn’t used the service but has friends who have.
For many students, the robots remain an amusing distraction: They like to stand in front of the impeccably behaved machines and watch as they halt, wait and then continue on only when it’s safe to do so.
There have been no instances of vandalism or other serious mischief, said Charles Farrell, a UIC spokesman. The robots are making about 100 deliveries per week, including from such on-campus eateries as Dunkin’ and Panda Express.
“If it gets lifted up —and that’s not something it’s anticipating — it will send a signal to the hub, and it has a horn and a siren, and it will [tell] the person who is lifting it to put it down,” Farrell said. “It’s not going to go quietly.”
With the wider terrain, the robots could deliver nonprescription drugs from an on-campus convenience store, Farrell said. And, no, there aren’t any plans to allow alcohol deliveries.
‘It doesn’t make sense to use a vehicle to deliver a burrito’
Starship, an Estonia-based company, has about 2,000 robots operating in six countries, a spokeswoman said. Deliveries are typically made within a 2-to-3-mile range.
“We believe the future of delivery will be multimodal. Starship robots can operate day or night in a variety of weather conditions, and it just doesn’t make sense to use a vehicle to deliver a burrito,” spokeswoman Annie Handrick said in a statement.
The robots have been cruising around the University of Houston campus since late 2019. The fleet of 30 robots makes about 300 deliveries a day.
“In the beginning, there was definitely a novelty aspect to it, and people were ordering just a cake pop or a bottle of water,” said Charles Pereira, vice president of operations at University of Houston for the food service company, Chartwells Higher Ed.
The robots cover about 85% of campus and offer a distinct advantage over other delivery services, he said.
“These robots will idle throughout different parts of campus. … When an order is placed, the technology will take the robot that’s closest to the restaurant and send that robot. … Also, they are small. So they can navigate on crosswalks and sidewalks that a vehicle cannot,” Pereira said.
Back at UIC, as one of the robots got stuck in the crowd outside the Student Center East recently during the fire alarm, student Iza Kopec, 18, looked pityingly at the machine.
“It’s so confused,” Kopec said.
But the robot wasn’t confused. It merely waited until the crowds had dispersed — it was a false alarm. A Panda Express worker approached, opened the robot’s lid and placed a hot order inside. A few moments later, the robot’s six wheels whirred as it headed off for a lecture hall about three minutes away.
It stopped at its destination, and student Armando Fraire activated the lock from his phone. The sweet smell of orange chicken wafted from the robot.
“Hello. … Here’s your delivery. … Thank you,” the robot said.
“It’s much easier for me. I get to sit over here, waiting for my class, and the food gets delivered to me,” said Fraire, who was waiting for a math lecture to begin.
He paid about $1.99 for the delivery charge. No tip?
“No, it’s a robot,” he said. “Come on!”