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Meals on Wheels 1/21/21


I hate to start off on a negative note, but today I have a bone to pick with a certain portion of our population. I’m talking to all you scientific types out there who want us to think you’re all so smart. Decades ago I was led to believe we’d have flying cars by now. Where are they? By now, we were supposed to have conveyor belts in our homes that would take care of us. We’d stand on one end of the belt and by the time we got off at the other end we’d have been washed, dried and dressed. Our teeth would be brushed, our hair combed, and our shoes shined. I still don’t have a conveyor and I’ve yet to meet anyone who does. I’m not sure who was in charge of making that stuff happen, but I feel pretty let down. What have you people been doing all this time? It seems like some pretty smart people who should have been making all of that happen have instead spent their time coming up with The Clapper, and an entire line of Flex-Seal products, and a million more social media apps than the world really needs. What the heck? Someone really dropped the ball on the important stuff and, let me tell you, none of the rest of us are happy about that. Those of you on the flying car project, in particular, should be ashamed of yourselves. So, listen up and perhaps this story will motivate you to finally get off your butts and get busy. That’s my goal anyway.


I really shouldn’t be painting all the smarty-pants folks out there with the same brush. There apparently have been some people out there doing extraordinary work in at least one important area. I recently made a trip to Mrs. Ednold’s workplace so we could have lunch together in her office. It was just lunch, but it was also, at once, both a step forward and a step backward in time.


Since last fall, food has been delivered all over the Oregon State University campus by little robots. I first noticed them when driving through campus, and assumed that they were being used as couriers to transport paperwork between offices. Which totally wouldn’t have made any sense in these paperless days, if I’d stopped to think about it. Not long after those first sightings, I saw a small swarm of them while out on one of my evening perambulations. Sometimes half a dozen at once coming and going from West Dining Hall. So I got nosey, and discovered that the little guys are part of a fleet of robots used by the OSU Dining Service to deliver food from all of the different dining halls and restaurants on campus to anywhere on campus you’d like it delivered to. The robots, owned and maintained by Starship Technologies, can now be found on over a dozen college campuses around the country but, of course, OSU is the first in the northwest to have them. Starship, by the way, was launched by an Estonian firm whose co-founders also developed Skype. These smarty people really are smart. The rest of you could learn a thing or two from them.



Several times now I have stopped to observe the little bots heading out to deliver meals to hungry students, staff or faculty, or returning from their trip to be decontaminated before being sent back out on their next assignment. If the people who fill the robots and send them on their way wonder about the strange dude who comes for ten minutes at a time to just sit and watch them, they haven’t said anything to me yet. They aren’t robots like the ones on Star Wars or other movies and TV shows, where they walk around talking to each other and generally try to act as human as possible. They are very quiet and, given their job, they look just like they should: like a small cooler on wheels. It’s a design that’s functional, but also makes me wish I could adopt one as a pet.


To sit back and watch the movements of these robots is to witness the quintessence of synchronicity and harmony. It has the same effect on me as watching waves crash against a rocky shoreline. It’s mesmerizing and soothing. They are capable of military precision, and the choreography can be beautiful. It reminds me of watching airplanes taking off and landing at a huge airport, except traffic control isn’t done by talking to someone in a big tower. To watch them interact as they come and go, 3 or 4 at a time, in and out of the hub outside the dining hall is to get a glimpse of humanity at an earlier age. They are programmed to behave the way people used to be programmed to behave, or at least the way I’d like to remember them behaving a long time ago.


The robots know the destination they’re trying to reach and they are aware of themselves, but also of each other and everything else around them. They use that incoming data from their surroundings to determine what their next move is. They stop at all stop signs. They look both ways before crossing a street, or a driveway across the sidewalk. They move over to give each other room to pass, and patiently wait their turn if they don’t have the right of way. They’re polite, considerate, thoughtful, well-mannered, courteous, and respectful in a way that people just aren’t anymore. There is a complete absence of the presumptuousness, impertinence, selfishness, and just plain meanness that you would see in humans trying to accomplish the same task. It’s refreshing and comforting to witness. And if someday you find yourself at a Beavers basketball game watching the robots put on a precisely choreographed halftime show, you can turn to the person next to you and tell them that you know who originally put that bug in someone’s ear.


Moving at a human’s brisk walking pace, the robots aren’t particularly fast, but they’re steady. They are infinitely patient and are completely unfazed by obstacles in their environment. According to a press release, “Computer vision-based navigation helps the robots to map their environment to the nearest inch as they use a combination of sophisticated machine learning, GPS intelligence and sensors to travel on sidewalks and navigate around obstacles.” They know where they’re going and they are totally focused on completing that mission. You won’t see the typical awkward pas de deux that is so frequent when two people are walking past each other in a limited space, each in a hurry to get where they’re going. When the robots encounter humans, the bots just stand still until the person is gone, then go back on their merry way.


Having observed the robots in action for a while, this week I figured it was time to see the other end of the process and have them deliver a meal to Mrs. Ednold and me. The whole cycle is initiated by a phone app, so the first thing we did was download that. Then we used it to choose where on the campus map we wanted to pick up our delivery. They don’t go inside buildings, but they can meet you at the door. Then we looked at menus for all of the 19 different food outlets on campus and placed our order. There is a 2 buck delivery fee and a 10% service fee, so it’s not exactly a free service, but to have your meal delivered by a robot it seems pretty reasonable, and you don’t have to worry about leaving a tip. In response to our order we received a message that it had been received, along with an estimated time of arrival. Along the way, the robot let us know how many minutes away he was, as well as an arrival notice at the end of his trip. (I’m assuming it was a “he”, though I didn’t want to embarrass him by checking to see.) We swiped a message on the phone to unlock the lid, grabbed our lunch, and closed the lid before swiping again to lock it back up and send it home.

The wheels were actually set in motion, you might say, for the robots to join the campus community long before the virus was around, but it makes for a perfect non-contact dining experience and the roll-out, as you might appropriately call it, was well-timed to take advantage of current dining regulations, which don't allow for what you may refer to as a free-wheeling approach. Though the robots are completely autonomous, a small staff of students in the Memorial Union keeps an eye on them and can actually see what each of the robots is seeing and can step in and take over if necessary. If one of them breaks down, flips over, or gets stuck for some reason, one of the staff can go out and address the problem.


So, nice job, Starship Technologies. We now have robots that will bring us lunch, or dinner, or a snack, night and day, rain or shine. Well done. I hope this lights a fire under the rest of you. For those of you working on the conveyor belt idea or the flying cars, I hope you do some serious reflecting on your failures and are spurred to finally get your acts together. I’ll be expecting a complete status report on my desk Monday morning.











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2 Comments


Adam Stewart
Adam Stewart
Jan 23, 2021

That is so cool, can’t wait to try this out someday! Thanks for another great story, Ednold!

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gilromastew
gilromastew
Jan 23, 2021

Ednold,

i didn't know these bots existed! How wonderful! I'm so glad you told us about them. Can't wait to see the for myself. Loved the blog as usual.

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