If you’re a college student, the robots are coming for you. And they’re bringing food

Devi Shastri

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Published 6: 00 AM EST Nov 23, 2019

MADISON, Wis. – The sun was setting on a frigid November day as 6E24 rolled up outside Dejope Residence Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and parked, awaiting human contact.

“Hello!” the little white robot chirped when the human arrived. “Here’s your delivery.”

From the push of a button on the man’s smartphone, 6E24 received a signal that this was the man it was sent to meet. It unlocked its lid and the man opened the picnic-basket-on-wheels and retrieved a Coke and a bottle of juice placed there by a dining hall employee.

“Thank you. Have a nice day,” 6E24 told Markus Zimmermann, the customer, before cruising off.

6E24 is one of 30 robots brought to UW-Madison this month, establishing a new era of convenience for students who are unwilling to stand in line for a meal and, for everyone else, a new source for entertaining internet memes.

Zimmermann, with a team of five employees of the San Francisco-based tech company Starship Technologies, also arrived with the bots. They are the humans who will help acclimate UW-Madison to the technology and the technology to UW-Madison.

“I would ultimately say we’re building a time machine,” he said. “We give (students) the gift of time and they can spend it doing whatever else they want to pursue.”

The new arrivals have been met with interest, as well as their share of social media-fueled jest.

Zimmermann said the team has received notes in the robots saying, “Hello robot!” and “We love you!” And many a Starship robot has been held up during its delivery mission for selfies.

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“It’s kind of a strange, almost dystopian feeling seeing them around on campus,” said freshman mechanical engineering student Sam Tobin. “It’s just the way they move. They’re almost like people.”

Tobin said, overall, he’s a fan. And his peers seem to be, too.

“I think last Sunday, there were a couple people at a bus stop and there was a Starship thing trying to cross the street,” he said. “And (the students) might have been a little intoxicated and they all just went wild when it finally worked up the courage to cross the street. They just started cheering and whooping. So, yeah, they are definitely well-loved on campus.”

It might help that they’re the cute kind of robots that can’t do much more than roll around campus handing out meals. UW-Madison Director of Dining and Culinary Services Peter Testory said every student he’s run into has made some reference to the Disney movie WALL-E.

“This is an exciting time on campus,” he said. “It’s exciting to be able to offer this to students, to see their excitement, to see the selfies and the pictures being taken. It’s also exciting to see that when one’s tipped over, the students will tip them right back up.”

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Students can order from one of three food halls through Starship’s app. Send the company the cost of the meal plus a $1.99 delivery fee and they’ll dispatch a six-wheeled bot to bring it to you. Users can track their meal on their phone and, once their meal arrives, unlock the robot from the app.

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Though autonomous robots may be more futuristic than what they were envisioning, students have often expressed their desire for a delivery option from the university’s food service, Testory said.

“It’s something they really expect these days with GrubHub and UberEats being around for so long,” Testory said.

The robots cost the university little more than some space in the basement of Dejope Residence Hall, the dining director said.

Starship keeps the delivery fee from each order. In exchange, its staff clean and charge the robots each night. They also get the experience of scaling up their young company, letting their technology map the sidewalks and adapt to the campus. Starship set a goal to be on 100 campuses within the next two years, Zimmermann said.

As they travel around campus, the robots will each use nine cameras, radar and ultrasonic sensors to learn about the World around them and to map UW-Madison’s network of sidewalks.

UW-Madison is the fourth and largest university to try out the Starship robots, after George Mason University, Northern Arizona University and Purdue University.

Will other universities follow suit in the battle to offer students the best luxuries around? Maybe.

Testory said he’s already hearing from colleagues at other universities who are keeping an interested eye on UW-Madison’s endeavor.

“I would expect others to use us as a learning experience to see how it goes and how it fits on their campus,” he said.

Follow Devi Shastri on Twitter @DeviShastri.

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