There are 15 distinct new faces wandering the University of Southern Indiana’s campus this year. Two weeks ago, a group of autonomous delivery robots arrived on campus — and yes, they really have faces.
A screen on the front of each robot allows them to wink, smile, and make hearts and stars with their eyes. The screen also displays greetings like “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Have a nice day,” and “You look good.”
“I’m excited for the social media content that will come from students interacting with these robots,” says Kaylee Johnson, a recent USI graduate and media relations specialist with the university’s strategic communications office.
Evansville Living spent a morning meeting three of them, named Doris, Octane, and Pathfinder. Victor Navarro, a city launcher with Kiwibot, the robotic delivery service company used by USI, says Kiwibot’s Head of Hardware and Manufacturing Natalia Pinilla names each robot. The company is working in collaboration with USI’s food service provider Sodexo and delivery app Grubhub.
Steve Bridges, USI’s vice president for finance and administration, says Sodexo first suggested the idea of delivery robots on campus. Working with Grubhub, it was determined that 15 Kiwibots — at $1,200 a piece — would be able to handle the food delivery demands of more than 9,000 students.
“We try to keep dining fresh and exciting,” Bridges says. “It appeals to us to be technologically advanced.”
Think of the Kiwibots as outdoor Roombas. The robots are equipped with high-tech sensors and nightlights to help them navigate the campus by themselves. Using sidewalks, the robots travel five miles an hour to deliver food, and Navarro says it does not take more than 30 minutes from ordering for students to receive their food. Robots also will wait up to six minutes for students to pick up their orders outside unless told otherwise.
They operate only during regular hours for most campus dining locations, except Starbucks, Eagle Bistro, and The Loft. Meals are tucked in a compartment on top of the robot that keeps the food and drink at the same temperature with a maximum of two meals per order, going to the same place. They also never enter buildings except for maintenance or at night when they return to a room in the David L. Rice Library to recharge.
In recent years, autonomous delivery robots have emerged on college campuses throughout the country. Twenty-six campuses currently use Kiwibot’s technology, including Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana. Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, launched delivery robots with a different company, Starship, in 2019. Last year, Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, also began using Starship’s delivery robots.
In the future, Bridges hopes the robots become a part of campus culture and that their orange reflective flags are replaced with USI flags. There also will be continued updates to the robots, including the ability for them to talk and play games with the students.
In the first two days of the fall semester, Bridges says student orders doubled, from 40 orders on Monday to 80 on Tuesday. There still are a few hiccups with bots getting lost or falling off sidewalks, but Bridges says, “They’re still learning.”
“It’s a work in progress. We’re starting with something that can adapt,” he says.