Attention drivers: if you’re driving down Wisconsin Avenue and you see what looks like a two-eyed black box on tiny wheels, you’re not freaking out.
The robots have arrived.
The motorized machines recently joined the crowds of Marquette University students crossing the main thoroughfare that runs through campus. And they have a job to do, deliver food to hungry students, faculty and staff who place orders through their smartphones.
The fleet of 15 Kiwibots have roamed the campus over the past month, learning Marquette’s terrain through a mix of sensors and artificial intelligence to map it into their memory.
A soft launch with one of the cafes on campus took place this week and expanded service at other restaurants is planned in the coming weeks, said Melanie Vianes, who leads the university’s food services.
“They’re definitely creating a buzz on campus,” she said.
The students’ reaction to the robots ranged from “cute” to “scary” to “weird”. One of them tried to get in front of a Kiwibot to see if it would recognize it and readjust its course (it did). Others took pictures of the bots or even with the bots.
Kiwibots can be programmed to have different “personalities”, Vianes said. Heart eyes, starry eyes, and winking eyes are some of the options. Bots are also essentially rolling billboards with display screens that can promote various campus programs.
When a delivery arrives, the customer unlocks the robot’s lid by swiping on their smartphone. Inside is their order, which hopefully arrived in 30 minutes or less.
“We talk about robots in class all the time,” said sophomore Connor Baldwin. “It’s so weird to see worlds collide and they’re all over campus now.”
Baldwin said he wasn’t interested in ordering food through Kiwibot, saying the cost of a meal plan is high enough without the extra delivery charges.
Subscriptions cost $40 for 15 deliveries, $109 for 45, and $159 for 70. Unused deliveries expire at the end of each semester.
College of Communication graduate student Grace Scalzo said she wouldn’t mind trying Kiwibots. The fee per delivery of around $2 is lower than other third-party delivery apps, such as UberEats and Grubhub, because the bots don’t expect a tip.
Sodexo, Marquette’s food service provider, contracts with Kiwibot to provide the delivery service. Officials expect orders to pick up during the colder months when students are hunkered down in their dorms or at the library and don’t want to brave the cold for a burger or bagel.
Kiwibots are used to roaming around in the cold and their innards are insulated, a company representative said. For now, as the robots learn the lay of the land, a chaperone will accompany them on deliveries that involve crossing a street.
Robot delivery catering is slowly becoming more common at universities in Wisconsin.
The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is also launch a fleet of Kiwibots on campus this fall.
UW-Madison has partnered with another company, Starship Technologies, although the general concept is the same. The university one The fleet of 30 robots debuted in November 2019, which turned out to be good timing. The robots offered students a dining option without having to set foot in a busy dining hall during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year, UW-Madison received nearly 80,000 orders, UW-Madison spokesman Brendon Dybdahl said.
“Starship robots have become a very popular item on our campus,” he said. “Students take pictures with them, help them out when they get stuck sometimes, and treat them almost like people.”