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Stranded University Students Get Supplies from Robot Deliveries

The fleet of robots on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus are on the front lines, working to deliver food and supplies to the several hundreds of students still stuck in residence halls during the pandemic.

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(TNS) — Most of UW-Madison's 45,000 students are gone. Faculty work from home. Campus buildings are closed to all but the few employees deemed essential to university operations.

But the robots remain, one of the few fixtures of campus culture still intact since the coronavirus brought much of UW-Madison to an abrupt halt.

The six-wheeled gizmos debuted in November, quickly gaining approval from students for bringing the university's dining halls to a level of convenience on par with third-party delivery apps, such as EatStreet and GrubHub.

Now the fleet of robots are on the front lines in feeding the few hundred students left living in residence halls and reducing the likelihood of coronavirus transmission. Those wary of venturing outside and coming into contact with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, can dispatch a robot to deliver food to the front door of their dorm building instead of heading to the sole dining hall that remains open.

Needless to say, UW-Madison officials never imagined the utility autonomous robots would provide in the midst of a pandemic. The service was started with more typical college scenarios in mind, such as long studying sessions when students don't want to leave the library or late-night snack cravings that arrive in the dead of winter.

"You think about all of the times they would be helpful but, no, I never imagined a pandemic as one of those situations," said UW-Madison director of dining and culinary services Peter Testory.

The bots conjured comparisons to the Disney science fiction movie WALL•E last fall. Students called the robots futuristic and left some with the impression that they were living in a dystopia. Now, a campus normally bustling with students enjoying the springtime weather is instead nearly empty. The robots' presence only makes the picture more surreal.

UW-Madison has been receiving roughly 70 daily delivery orders in recent weeks with about 550 students still living in residence halls, Testory said. In the first half of the semester when nearly 7,800 lived in the dorms, the university had about 400 orders coming in every day. Had the semester continued normally, he expected to break 500 orders per day.

The university contracted with Starship Technologies, a San Francisco-based tech company, to bring autonomous delivery to campus. The $1.99 delivery fee students pay in addition to the cost of their food keeps the service running, he said.

Students order food through the Starship app and can track their meal on their phone. A dining hall worker loads the order into the bot, which delivers it to the front entrance of the requested campus building by relying on artificial intelligence, sensors and cameras to cross streets and avoid obstacles unscathed. Once a meal arrives, students unlock the food using the app.

Students have long asked for a delivery option on campus, Testory said. But UW-Madison has not not had the staff to run its own delivery service in recent years because of a student worker shortage in dining halls.

With far fewer potential customers on campus because of the pandemic, Testory said workers are only "waking up" 10 to 14 of the fleet of 30 robots per day. Dining hall employees are taking extra precautions, sanitizing the robots before placing orders in their food chambers and cleaning them again after closing the lid.

Starship designed the bots to be polite, but also to stand their ground. For example, on Valentine's Day, those placing orders received not only their food but also a spoken holiday greeting, he said.

Anyone intentionally blocking a bot's path will receive a respectful request: "Please excuse me; I'm a Starship robot trying to do my job," the bot chirps. If a person does not oblige, the robot may become hostile and start sounding alarms, Testory said.

With campus practically a ghost town for the rest of the semester, wheeling along sidewalks and streets poses few problems for the robots these days.

©2020 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.