BERKELEY, Calif. — Come lunchtime on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, thousands of students rush out for a bite to eat and head back to class. But for more than a year, a few hundred have stayed put and instead summoned a knee-high robot bearing a burrito, a burger or other meals from a nearby restaurant.
The robot invasion is underway, and the intruders are bringing hot pizza.
Kiwi Campus, a start-up that operates in the square mile surrounding the university, has made more than 60,000 robotic food deliveries in the past two years. “There’s nowhere in the world that robots are a more integral part of its sidewalks than Berkeley,” said Sasha Iatsenia, Kiwi’s head of product. “It’s ultimately a social experiment to see how robots get accepted by a community.”
The company takes a trial-and-error approach. The path followed by each robot at first was guided entirely by remote control by Kiwi employees 3,800 miles away in Medellín, Colombia. So-called pilots, still in Colombia, where the founders are from, now set and adjust a series of way points along a path. The delivery bot is about the size of a proverbial breadbasket, and it carries a single cubic foot of cargo.
The devices, which have an onboard computer and six cameras, cost about $3,500 each to produce in China. Final assembly takes place in Berkeley.
Maya Goehring-Harris, associate director of external relations at U.C. Berkeley, is a superuser of the Kiwibots.
“I generally don’t leave my desk for work,” she said. “All of a sudden, there was a way for my favorite places to bring food to me rather than having to go walk for 10 minutes.”
Ms. Goehring-Harris doesn’t like people-based food deliveries, which she believes can be unhygienic. “Food safety means less human involvement,” she said. Besides the economics work out better. “I don’t tip a robot.”
She was so frequently placing orders — at $2.80 per delivery — that she upgraded to the company’s Prime account at $15 a month for unlimited use.
A few weeks ago, Turhan Ammons, a 20-year-old Kiwibot courier and a student at Berkeley City College, was perched atop a self-balancing electric scooter, rifling through shelves of to-go orders at Chipotle on Telegraph Avenue. He quickly snatched a brown bag and went searching for the robot designated to transport the burrito.
Mr. Ammons and the four other so-called Kiwi Mates on the shift repeat this process over 350 times a day. “It’s like an assembly line,” he said.
Unfortunately, the robot meant to deliver the burrito was pranked by students. They placed it behind a traffic barrier, effectively caging it. “My job is to go around and rescue food,” said Mr. Ammons, who has seniority on the team.
Kiwi is a work in progress. Its bots frequently lurch in front of pedestrians. The GPS is imprecise, so couriers and customers need to hunt down the robot’s locations, sometimes behind bushes. There are regular reports of minor bot abuse by those protesting high-tech invasiveness. Mr. Ammons said nearly half his orders were entirely delivered on foot or Segway.
Mr. Iatsenia, Kiwi’s product chief, is undaunted. Kiwi plans to eclipse a million robotic deliveries on college campuses before the end of next year, and Mr. Iatsenia is guided by a grand vision of displacing car delivery.
“DoorDash and Uber Eats use two-ton Hondas to deliver a small container of hummus,” he said. “That’s very inefficient.”
He cited the use of a tall orange flag (to help find the bot) and a digital smiley face on the bot (to endear it to pedestrians) as design innovations.
“A lot of companies in the space are focused on building the best robot that works amazingly in a lab but that doesn’t mesh seamlessly within the fabric of our sidewalks as the Kiwibot does,” he said.
Fifty miles south of Berkeley are the Mountain View headquarters of Nuro. The robotics company has a similar desire to disrupt, but at a bigger scale. In February, the SoftBank Vision Fund invested $940 million in Nuro, bringing the company’s fund-raising to more than $1 billion. Nuro’s founders previously worked on Google’s self-driving cars.
Scattered about Nuro’s design lab are pizza boxes and grocery bags for testing. Hundreds of design sketches line the walls.
“We’re focused on creating the perfect vehicle for local goods delivery,” said Brian Baker, lead product manager at Nuro.
He pointed to early sketches. “You can see a sidewalk bot-esque feel,” he said. “But as you weave your way down, things become more vehicular with more automotive cues.”
The sketches evolved into Nuro’s R1 road-worthy vehicle. It’s a little more than half the length of a Toyota Camry and roughly half its width. Fry’s grocery stores used five R1s in Scottsdale, Ariz., in a 14-month pilot project that ended in March. Thousands of customers paid $5.95 to have groceries delivered by the driverless vehicles.
In early 2020, Nuro is expected to put its next-generation R2 vehicle in service for Domino’s Pizza in Houston.
“We saw unmanned delivery of local logistics as an incredibly compelling opportunity,” Dave Ferguson, Nuro’s chief executive, said in a phone interview. “There was a massive market need and a huge societal impact.”
Mr. Ferguson frequently reiterates that Americans take 400 billion personal vehicle trips each year. “Forty-three percent of those are for shopping and running errands,” he said.
The R1 can carry up to 12 bags of groceries. Its current limit of 25 miles per hour is a temporary step to avoid federal safety regulations created for passenger vehicles. Future Nuro vehicles are planned to go up to 45 m.p.h.
“The height of the vehicle has to be roughly the height of other vehicles so that it can be seen,” Mr. Ferguson said. An arching beam on the roof positions cameras and sensors at the best vantage point. Onboard microphones listen for sirens.
Friendliness and accessibility were core design principles. “The main influence of the front fascia is a racecar driver’s helmet with the visor down,” said Ben Julian, director of industrial design at Nuro. “This is an all-new class of vehicle, but we want people to trust it.”
Nuro analyzed the layout of the cargo bins so no customers, including those in a wheelchair, need to reach high or bend low. Various door styles were discarded in favor of what became a vehicle with two tall, sideways trunks. They open on only one side so consumers don’t have to remove groceries next to traffic.
With two divided cargo bays, vehicles can make either a big delivery to one customer or back-to-back deliveries of one compartment each. Customers use the vehicle’s smartphone-like screen to open the correct bins.
“It’s kind of a car, but it’s also a hybrid of a consumer appliance,” Mr. Baker said. “Once it’s done bringing your things, it moves on, spending a large part of its life out on the road interacting with pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles on the road.”
The expanding fleet of earthbound delivery bots will be mirrored by a growing swarm of delivery drones buzzing in American skies. In a decade’s time, about 438 million packages will be delivered by drone in the United States each year, according to Navigant Research, a market research firm. By then, about 120,000 drones will be deployed by Amazon, UPS, Alphabet and others that are investing huge sums in the future of delivery bots.
Back on the ground, in Nuro’s “Wall-E” conference room, I met the company’s safety chief, Jennifer Dawson. “As a mom with young kids who has seen people drive like maniacs in my little neighborhood, I would much rather have a Nuro bot delivering my stuff,” said Ms. Dawson, who has extensive experience testing high-precision satellites.
“People are going to be asking in the not-too-distant future, ‘How did we live without it?’”