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Heading to the college dining hall to get some grub is so last semester — at least for some students at George Mason University.
The college in Fairfax, Virginia, became the first school to launch food and beverage delivery via a fleet of autonomous robots earlier this year through a partnership with Sodexo and Starship Technologies.
The service, which uses small battery-powered robotic containers to deliver meals from local businesses to university buildings and dorms, launched in January. Since then, more than 10,000 orders have been placed.
It has been so well received that Sodexo has expanded the program at GMU and last week began service at Northern Arizona University, with hopes of expanding to more universities.
Students and visitors to the GMU campus can place orders on the Starship Deliveries App using credit cards or Mason Money, linked to prepaid declining balance accounts. The app sends the orders to vendors. Users can choose a destination or pick-up location on campus for the delivery, with projected delivery times displayed. The robots are locked, and customers use the app to unlock the bots once they are at their door.
The delivery fee is low, $1.99 per order. Delivery hours have been extended to 2 a.m., with plans for a 24-hour service in the near future. Breakfast has also been a big hit, with 1,500 orders so far.
At first, students say, ordering a robot to deliver coffee was a novelty, but now it's become a part of life on campus. This is evident in how busy the bots are at peak hours and how they seem to migrate the grounds around, and even as a part of, the packs of students making their way to and from class. It's not uncommon to see campus visitors snap a photo while others completely ignore the small rectangular bots on wheels passing them by, full of coffees, pizzas, fries and more. The bots even politely say, "Hello, I'm a Starship Delivery Robot."
"In the very beginning, people used to just order drinks so they could have a robot come to their dorm and show all of their friends," said Kayla Shifflett, a GMU junior who works as a robot-runner at Blaze Pizza on campus. "They're ordering more normal things now. … It's helped us do our jobs and get stuff to more people that can't come get their pizza."
The program now has more than 40 robots with delivery services from a handful of popular spots, including Dunkin', Blaze Pizza, Einstein Bros. Bagels and Steak 'n Shake, with Chick-fil-A and Starbucks options coming soon. Sodexo says Blaze Pizza has taken off in popularity, with some 70 robot orders coming in per day.
To be sure, the service suffered some bumps along the way, mainly in navigating construction around the GMU campus, along with winter storms. Sodexo says the students have been helpful, even lifting up the bots as they tried to venture across snow to get them back on course.
Victoria Orosa, a senior, is one of the students happy not to have to leave the dorm or on-campus job to get a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. "I don't like walking across campus to get food, and so when I found out we had Dunkin' I was like, 'Yay — coffee that will come to me that I don't have to walk in the cold for.'" Orosa said she uses the service every few weeks when things get hectic and finding time to go out for food can be challenging.
Sodexo said the early success at GMU led to an expansion to Northern Arizona University, with plans for more to come. Service at NAU's Flagstaff campus began last week.
"We want to get this right and make sure that every brand is ready to go," said Jeffery McKinley, Sodexo general manager at GMU.
And while the idea that robots are replacing human employees is a common notion, particularly in the food industry, Sodexo and Starship say they've actually created more than 20 new positions for students in managing either the robots or orders associated with them.
"I would say it's added a couple of jobs. It's more work, so it's added instead of taken away," robot-runner Shifflett said. "It's definitely a nice addition."