TUCSON — More than 35,000 University of Arizona students are now able to order their favorite foods from on-campus dining locations — including IQ Fresh, Einstein Bros Bagels, On Deck Deli and Sabor — via the Grubhub app and have them delivered by an autonomous rover capable of navigating campus on its own.
The rovers are being deployed on the UA campus through a partnership between Arizona Student Unions and the food delivery service Grubhub. UA is the second campus to offer the delivery option this fall, following Ohio State University.
Through the Grubhub app, customers will be able to choose robotic delivery in addition to the already familiar options of pickup or in-person delivery, if they are located in an area where the new delivery method is available.
“We know that our students are very interested in forward-thinking tech applications such as smart vending machines, and we hope that with this new delivery option, we can offer quicker deliveries, especially during rush times, across campus,” said Christine Carlson, director of dining and nutrition for Arizona Student Unions.
Manufactured by Yandex Self-Driving Group, the rovers, which weigh in at just over 100 pounds and move at speeds between 3 and 5 mph, use technology initially developed for self-driving cars. UA is the first campus to benefit from a full deployment of the company’s third generation self-driving technology, which enables the rovers to navigate pavements, campus crosswalks and pedestrian areas on their own to blend in with cross-campus traffic.
Resembling something like a cross between a Mars rover and a sleek-looking ice chest, the six-wheeled vehicles can operate during daytime and after dark and in various weather conditions, including rain, wind and heat. The rovers will operate seven days a week, and students can request delivery to popular locations on campus including dorms, the Main Library, Albert B. Weaver Science-Engineering Library, McKale Memorial Center and more.
Once an order comes in to one of the participating dining locations, staff will ready the order for takeout as they normally would, place it inside a rover’s cargo compartment and send the rover on its way. The customer who placed the order will then receive a unique retrieval code through the Grubhub app that ensures their order gets delivered to them and nobody else. Once the rover is in the vicinity of the person who placed the order, the app will notify the person and provide the access code. All the customer has to do is type in the code and grab the food after the rover automatically pops its lid. And maybe snap a selfie with the robot before it heads to its next job.
Before the rollout, the robots roamed campus to familiarize themselves with the new environment, under close supervision by technicians. A virtual fence set up through geofencing ensures the robots don’t venture off campus. Sporting a pair of illuminated “cartoon eyes” that give them a friendly, cartoonlike face, the rovers’ actual eyes are more subtle and high-tech. A suite of cameras, radar and laser sensors allow them to “see” their surroundings and avoid obstacles. Thanks to machine learning algorithms, the rovers learn as they move around, creating ever-more refined three-dimensional maps of their “habitat.”
“In a way, it’s similar to how humans navigate,” said Yulia Shveyko, who oversees media relations for Yandex. “As we walk around town, we may see a shop, a certain memorial or other landmark and we recognize where we are. The robots learn to recognize their surroundings as they move around. The maps stored in their ‘brains’ are continuously updated.”
Should a rover find itself in an unexpected situation – let’s say a pedestrian were to challenge it to a game of chicken – it would just stop, Shveyko explained. “The algorithm would tell it to wait and figure out what is going on.”
In rare cases when the rover might need help, it can send a request to a remote human operator, who will assess the situation around the robot, give directions and provide guidance on how to proceed.
Features of the third-generation robots include removable batteries that take less than a minute to replace and allow the robots to run without being chained to a recharge station.
“We’ve been working with the University of Arizona’s dining team on efforts that drive the dining experience forward for the last eight years – from rolling out on-campus pickup and delivery to smart food lockers and our ‘Ultimate’ ordering technology,” said Travis Price, senior manager for strategic partnerships at Grubhub.
“Our ongoing partnership with Grubhub, and now Yandex, continues to strengthen and bring cool new innovation to our campus,” said Todd Millay, executive director of Arizona Student Unions. “We’re lucky to be the second school in the nation to launch with Grubhub’s new robot delivery service, and we can’t wait for our students to enjoy the convenience of this amazing technology.”