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Rovers offer autonomous food delivery to Ohio State campus

Program looks to cut cost and wait times

If you’re hungry, these are the droids you’re looking for.

The Ohio State University is rolling out a new autonomous food delivery service that will allow students, faculty and staff to order and receive food from campus cafes and restaurants. When the program goes live next week, more than 50 picnic-cooler-sized rovers will roll across campus to deliver food and drinks to the community.

“There are two important things that we're trying to solve for: One is the cost of the delivery, and the second is the time it takes to deliver the food,” said Zia Ahmed, senior director for dining services in Ohio State’s Office of Student Life.

Ahmed said dining services research found it takes about an hour to get food delivered in the area, costing between $5 and $6 per delivery. The rover program intends to reduce wait times to 30 minutes and cut costs to $2.50 per delivery.

Reduced costs and wait times are not the only benefits. Abby Silone, a second-year computer and information sciences major, works for dining services and said long delivery times affect food quality.

“When we make a frozen drink, we have to sit it on the counter and we have to wait for a person to come and pick it up and deliver it,” she said. “It can take about an hour and a half until that frozen drink is to the customer. It’s all melted. It’s gross. The whipped cream is just gone. But if we have a robot, as soon as we’re done making it, we’ll put it right into the machine and we’ll deliver automatically to the person.”

The program is meant to be intuitive. Customers will use the same GrubHub app they currently use to order food. When they place their order, they will select a delivery option and will be able to track the rover through the app.

Deliveries will be made to a designated spot at each location. For now, locations include all campus residence halls, Bricker Hall and Thompson Library. The delivery area is bounded by Lane Avenue, High Street, 9th Avenue and Cannon Drive. Food will be delivered by Curl Market, Connecting Grounds, 12th Avenue Bread Company and Mirror Lake Eatery to start.

Silone said the rovers offer some safety to students as well.

“Instead of waiting and meeting someone I don’t know, waiting for an awkward interaction with that person, I’m just talking to a robot, picking up my food and heading back up to my room,” she said.

Rovers use four separate technologies, including radar and cameras, to monitor their surroundings. The rovers watch for traffic and pedestrians, brake when something crosses their path and can operate wherever people walk, including through water and snow.

“The rovers are going to be more aware than you and I walking around campus,” Ahmed said. “These robots are not on their phone and they’re not paying attention to other things while they're roaming around campus.”

The university hopes to have about 100 rovers on campus when the program is fully operational. Similar food delivery rovers are available on the campuses of the University of Wisconsin, Purdue and Bowling Green.

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