Robots Step in for Humans to Provide Essential Delivery Services

In the time of stay-at-home orders due to coronavirus, delivery robots can be used to lessen human interaction. Robots that had previously transported meals on college campuses are now delivering necessities and medical supplies. 


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Image credit: Kiwibot

Ensuring people have food and medicine is a priority with stay-at-home orders in place and growing fear over the spread of COVID-19. Robotic delivery may be the answer. These unmanned vehicles, many about the size of a cooler, can be used to deliver meals, groceries, and medical supplies, and they can play a vital role in infectious disease containment and prevention. 

Companies such as Amazon, Kiwibot, and Starship Technologies  are among the top players in the autonomous delivery vehicle market. Amazon’s Scout robot is delivering packages with lots of success on the West Coast, where customers can simply open the robot with a code to retrieve their parcel. Other companies that were using robotic delivery on college campuses are now using them to make deliveries of hand-sanitizer and medical supplies for the handful of people left on campuses during the shutdown. 

Enterprising Starship

San Francisco-based Starship Technologies is piloting fleets of delivery robots in the U.K. and the U.S. Starship’s robots, shaped like a large cooler, are designed for food delivery on college campuses. Students download an app to their phones and place orders from there. The robots deliver to dorms, libraries, parks, and other locations. The app sends a notification when the robot arrives, and the customer unlocks the robot using a button from the phone.

During the pandemic, the six-wheeled robots continue to deliver food to students and staff who remain on campuses. The company, however, is exploring partnerships with grocery stores and restaurants and hopes to expand as quickly as possible. By providing robotic delivery, ill or at-risk people can receive food and medicine without interaction--or possible contamination--from a human delivery driver. 

The Starship robots are equipped with cameras, a GPS inertial measurement unit, ultrasonic sensors, and 3D radar. When the robots were first tested, they were programmed with maps that contained possible delivery routes. As the robots travel around an area, they auto-learn their surroundings by saving the information picked up by cameras and sensors. By incorporating the learned information, the robots improve their delivery routes and become more efficient. 

Visual representation of what human sees and what a computer sees

Left, what the human sees. Right, what the computer sees.
Image credit: Starship Technologies

The phone app also allows users to track the location of the Starship vehicle. Built-in speakers allow the Starship devices to communicate with passerbys. They are programmed with phrases such as “excuse me,” “Happy Valentine’s Day,” or “thank you” if a person moves out of their way or rights a fallen device. With a rolling speed slightly faster than the average walking pace, the robots make local deliveries in about 15 minutes.

Distributing Medical Supplies

Felipe Chávez, CEO of Kiwibot, is already enlisting his robots to aid in the battle with COVID-19. Kiwibots, which are similar in size and functionality to Starship’s robots, are delivering meals, antibacterial gels, face masks, and other necessary supplies to students in Berkeley, CA, and in Denver. For this rollout, Kiwibot partnered with Freedom Robotics. Based in San Francisco, Freedom Robotics has built an intelligent software infrastructure that allows Kiwibot and other hardware makers to build, operate, and scale robotic fleets. 

As people are quarantined, Kiwibot plans to expand its delivery options and functionality of the robots. Kiwibot is working on a fumigator attachment that can sanitize large areas with antiviral spray and UV lights. 

Kiwibot is also testing fleets outside the US. The company plans to enlist a fleet of robots in Columbia, South America to make deliveries of food and supplies. If that is successful, Kiwibots will expand into other countries.

Contactless Delivery

With the current focus on reducing human interaction, these small delivery robots are well-suited to augment human delivery services. In addition to college campuses, hospitals and nursing homes could benefit from the addition of smaller delivery robots, which can deliver medicine, food, and other supplies to staff and patients without human contact. 

A lingering impact of the novel Coronavirus will be reducing human interaction. Delivery robots are proving to be an effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, one delivery at a time. 


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