By Calvin Pynn, contributor
This story was updated on 9/5 to include comment from Starship Technologies.
The robot cordially greeted me before I unlocked the compartment with my phone and retrieved my snack. Then, it rolled away to carry out its next mission on campus.
I’d never thought ordering food from a droid would be something I would be doing in the name of journalism, but here we are. The future is now, and it only cost me a $1.99 delivery fee.
A fleet of 30 delivery robots has now landed in Harrisonburg, courtesy of Starship Technologies, a San Francisco company founded in 2014. Already operating on several other U.S. college campuses , the company’s robots are now delivering food from university dining halls to anyone on campus.
While the robots can carry a variety of items including parcels, flowers, and medications, their primary job on college campuses has been food delivery. Starship first launched campus food delivery at George Mason University in January 2019 in partnership with food service company Sodexo, starting with a fleet of 25 robots.
The expansion to JMU is part of the company’s plan to reach one million students across 100 university campuses across the U.S., according to the its website.
According to Starship, the robots’ range is limited to three miles, and they move at a pedestrian speed of less than four miles per hour. They primarily stick to sidewalks and crosswalks, but will travel in the road if they encounter rough terrain. Mapping techniques, feature detection and a sensor suite equipped with cameras, GPS and radar allow them to operate autonomously – though they can be controlled remotely if need arises.
Debut delayed twice by COVID
Negotiations between Starship and JMU were first reported by The Breeze in February, and the two reached an agreement to launch in March.
“We were interested in the service and a JMU alum contacted us about possibly bringing them here,” said Brent Beringer, JMU’s director of dining services. “We explored the possibility over a few months last fall and determined that they would be a good fit for campus.”
The initial launch planned for March was delayed, however, when university closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And while the robots were being rolled out as students returned for the fall semester, JMU’s sudden pivot to online classes through September has delayed the official launch once again.
Nevertheless, Aramark – the company that provides all food on campus – hopes to keep the robots in service despite the lack of students on campus, as dining halls will remain open during September.
“We are still working through the schedule for the next few weeks, but the plan at the moment is to use the robots to deliver from locations they are servicing while they are open,” said spokesperson Nicole Jackson.
Starship technologies spokesperson Janel Steingberg is optimistic that another wave of campus closings will not slow down their robots. Many of those robots were still in service for students who stayed on their partner university’s campuses when the pandemic first hit.
“Contactless delivery is seen as an essential service by many during the pandemic,” Steinberg said in an email to The Citizen. “Starship works closely with the dining services at each school to make sure that the students staying on campus will continue to get the food they need safely.”
The partnership between Starship Technologies and the university is simple, Beringer said.
“The robots are part of the meal plan on campus, and they are considered a part of JMU Dining,” he said. “Starship has provided the technology and support on the ground, JMU Dining provides the food.”
When not in service, the robots “live” at D-Hub, a facility on Dukes Drive on campus, according to Beringer. Starship Technologies has a team on campus to tackle a variety of jobs, including servicing the robots, and assisting the restaurants.
“Starship has a presence on every campus, and it’s important to us that we hire locally, with a focus on students,” Steinberg wrote.
The fleet of 30 robots services 16 residence halls on campus, plus all buildings between the university’s Main and East campuses and the Grace Street Apartments.
The map on Starship’s delivery app shows that the robots can deliver to other nearby buildings away from JMU’s main campus, such as Massanutten Hall and Hotel Madison. They have also been spotted traversing some city sidewalks near campus.
Robot regs: a brief overview
According to Michael Parks, Harrisonburg’s spokesperson, discussions between the city and Starship were minimal prior to the robot fleet’s arrival. The company notified the city in March that they would be coming, explained how they work, and discussed which sidewalks and crosswalks the robots would be using.
While the robots’ delivery range has been limited to JMU, they occasionally must traverse city sidewalks – and sometimes roads – to reach the university’s buildings away from the main campus. To reach orders from buildings such as Massanutten Hall, or the Hotel Madison they would have to travel down the sidewalks of Grace Street or South Main Street to get there.
All regulations for the robots – including licensing and insurance, are handled by the state.
“These are not discussions we have had as it is out of our purview,” Parks said in an email to The Citizen. “We were given an overview of the program, but outside of that, we have not had any involvement.”
Starship’s robots would be classified as personal delivery devices in the eyes of the Commonwealth, an item added to the Virginia State Code in 2017. By law, localities do not have the authority to prohibit use of those devices. Still, delivery robots can’t go faster than 10 miles per hour, have to have brakes and must obey all traffic and pedestrian signals.
Originally, robots were also limited to sidewalks and crosswalks, but later changes to the code allow them to drive on the road, provided the speed limit is 25 miles per hour and they don’t hold up traffic.
According to Parks, the city has received no complaints from residents about these robots. And according to me, now resupplied with Chex Mix and seltzer, they’re due a public compliment.
Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We’re also a proud member of the Virginia Press Association. Thanks for your support.