Robots are now delivering food in San Francisco

New robots deliver food in San Francisco
New robots deliver food in San Francisco

Residents in San Francisco now have a new option when ordering falafel or a kabab: Robot delivery.

Marble is a 20 person start-up in San Francisco that is building and deploying a handful of robots in a partnership with Yelp. Customers place an order using Yelp's Eat24 app, which then allows them to opt-in for robot delivery right to their doorstep.

Diners receive a text message with a code, permitting them to unlock the robot's cargo bin and enjoy meals from one of four participating restaurants. If successful, these robots could one day replace human couriers for range of products.

"A robot like this will never be useful to deliver you a mattress or set of skis," Marble co-founder and CEO Matt Delaney tells CNBC. "But the vast majority of goods are relatively small. We are making this useful for many segments including groceries, meals, pharmacy and medicines."

Tech giants like Amazon, Alphabet and Uber are also interested in rethinking "last mile" delivery. Start-ups like Marble cannot compete with these companies when it comes to size and scale, but it could be an attractive acquisition target. In 2012, Amazon bought robotics company Kiva Systems for nearly $1 billion.

Marble has already raised $4 million from investors, including Maven Ventures which has a track record of spotting successful autonomous vehicle startups. The firm was an early investor in Cruise Automation, which General Motors acquired for $1 billion.

Jim Scheinman, founding managing partner at Maven, says Marble could prove to be a significant cost-saver for delivery companies.

He estimates that human delivery costs account for up to 80 percent of expenses incurred by companies like Instacart and Postmates. Swapping out humans for robots can produce tremendous efficiencies for the so-called last mile, or the distance between the restaurant and the customer's home.

A food delivery robot from start-up Marble

"Helping them save on last mile delivery costs with efficient autonomous Marble robotic deliveries, which is also a delightful experience for the customer, is a massive market opportunity for Marble," Scheinman says.

Marble does face competition in this space, however.

Earlier this year, another robot company called Starship Technologies, which has raised $17 million from investors, announced partnerships with DoorDash and Postmates. There is also Dispatch, which has secured $2 million from investors including Andreesen Horowitz.

Despite the enthusiasm from private tech investors, this technology is still nascent.

For example, Marble's robots are currently accompanied by a human chaperone when rolling through the streets of San Francisco. The vehicles do not climb stairs, and deliveries right now are limited to just two neighborhoods.

There is also the question of vandalism: What's to stop a pedestrian from destroying one of these robots?

Maven's Scheinman counters that every robot is outfitted with sensors and cameras, thus criminals who damage one of these vehicles would be quickly identified.