Contactless delivery as a concept, didn’t exist prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The phrase describes the way of delivering food and other goods without humans having to interact with or touch one another.
Delivery robots hold the promise of taking contactless delivery one step further, by removing humans from the equation altogether. Over in Ann Arbor, MI, Refraction.ai launched its robot fleet for restaurant lunch delivery earlier this year, and this month started piloting a grocery delivery service.
Refraction builds the REV-1, an autonomous three-wheeled delivery robot that is ruggedized so that it can handle inclement weather. The company has eight robots rolling through a 3.5 mile radius around Ann Arbor right now making deliveries , with another 15 robots being manufactured.
I first came across Refraction’s grocery work in a WIRED article about the delivery fees Refraction was charging. So I hopped on the phone with Refraction Co-Founder, Ram Vasudevan, to find out more about its grocery program and catch up with the company.
According to Vasudevan, Refraction has partnered with a local grocery store called the Produce Station and has another grocery partner coming online soon. The program is currently being tested and is not yet open to the public, but for now, customers are directed to a special website created by Refraction where they can shop online for food items just as they would from any retailer. A robot is dispatched to the store where a worker there packs it with the order (a REV-1 can hold six grocery bags). The robot is then sent off to the house for delivery with a text message alerting the shopper when the robot has arrived.
The Refraction robot isn’t completely contactless, however. Recipients still need to touch the robot to unlock it, something Vasudevan says the company is working on. Refraction is also looking to add UV lights to the cargo cavity to help with sanitization.
Refraction isn’t the only company that is doing robotic food delivery. Starship’s cooler-sized robots have been doing grocery delivery in Milton Keynes, England, and are now doing restaurant delivery in U.S. cities like Tempe, AZ and Fairfax, VA. And Nuro was given the greenlight by California to start testing its autonomous pod vehicles, which about half the size of a regular car, for deliveries as well.
But one advantage Refraction’s robot may have is its “Goldilocks”-like size. It stands five feet tall and is narrow enough to travel in the bike lanes on roads . This could potentially make it more friendly to city regulators who don’t want their sidewalks clogged with robots. It could also prove more attractive than a pod, because the robot can skooch off to the side to make way for traffic, and have an easier time finding enough space to park.
Vasudevan said that Refraction was “overwhelmed” with interest from restaurants when it launched that delivery option earlier this year. As the company moves past the testing phase, it’s going to have quite a bit of contact with grocers as well.