OSU Little White Robots Still Delivering

When the Oregon State University campus was first locked down in the spring of 2020, thousands of students were stuck in their dormitory rooms with no safe way to obtain meals without interacting physically with delivery people. With people dying of the original strain of COVID-19 by the tens of thousands, the University’s Campus Dining & Catering service looked for a secure way to deliver meals and comfort items to bored and isolated students. 

A company had what seemed like a perfect solution: small electrically-powered autonomous robots which could be programmed to travel to loading sites to be filled with meals and snacks and then deliver them all over campus. The sleek little robots were, for some reason, called “Starships” – why they weren’t called “Robbies” or “Robutlers” or “Johhnycabs” or some other name that would actually describe their function is unclear, and soon they were seen rolling quietly back and forth across campus, using sidewalks and crosswalks. They were unable to get through doors, stairs, or elevators, so could only deliver to outdoor locations. 

They also had trouble with train tracks. 

For the most part, the little white Starship robots were received with pleasure by students at Oregon State, although some were a bit suspicious of them. 

Still, they were only intended to be operating on campus for a limited period. Now that people have become accustomed to the convenience of robotic delivery though – and accustomed to paying the delivery fee charged for each robot trip, it looks as though the robots will continue to cross the University campus indefinitely, even as in other respects people seem committed to pretending that the viral pandemic has simply gone away. This is good news for the people who pack the meal and snack orders inside the robots, since that part of the process has by no means been automated yet. 

It’s not only dull repetitive work, either. Now that OSU has the Starship robots, it has flexibility to try new things which would not have been possible before.  

“[W]e could develop a pop-up restaurant that we can open up somewhere and not have a storefront, but it’s just for the robot,” Kerry Paterson, Director of Campus Dining & Catering, explained to KEZI 

And if the robot uprising does start by keeping our students fed, then maybe it won’t be as bad as the sci-fi writers predicted… and maybe root for the trains. 

By John M. Burt