Credit: Marble

While Amazon’s trying to figure out how to deliver Prime packages using drones, other startups are making land grabs for the sidewalk delivery market. We wrote last year about Starship, the robot delivery vehicle made from the brains of Skype co-founders, Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis. Starship was the first to start actively piloting robot delivery drivers around the streets of London; the robots were equipped with sophisticated onboard software that allowed them to autonomously navigate city streets to deliver goods door-to-door.

Now Starship has some competition in the form of a new partnership from Yelp’s food delivery service Eat24 and Marble, a startup that’s creating a “fleet of intelligent courier robots” made for urban delivery usage. Yelp Eat24 and Marble are together bringing robot food delivery to the streets of San Francisco. TechCrunch spotted the Marble vehicles earlier in the month and the duo made their official announcement late last week.

The Yelp Eat24 use of the Marble robots works the same as their normal delivery service; the company works with about 40,000 restaurants but offers delivery as an opt-in feature the restaurant can use for an additional fee. Marble effectively becomes another delivery vendor for Yelp, collecting a fee for each trip and yes – robots do accept tips.

CNET takes a look at both Starship and Marble sidewalk delivery robots.

Marble’s robots are built to be modular – these particular models are designed for quick food delivery, with a pod that can hold a bag that keeps food cold or warm. But the cargo area could also be designed to carry other goods like medicine and could even be outfitted to have an onboard oven to actively cook food as it travels.

Marble is a direct competitor to Starship and offering delivery in San Francisco is upping the game; Starship announced earlier this year that it would start delivering in Washington, D.C. via delivery partner Postmates and in Redwood City, CA using DoorDash.

Both Marble and Starship have committed to sending human “chaperones” with the sidewalk robots for their early journeys. Marble said it was in order to answer questions about the robot to interested pedestrians, but it’s probably also to gather qualitative data about how people react to the robots and what real life risks they might encounter.

It’s not a surprise that the market for food delivery in the U.S. is so hot – 2015 was the first year that Americans spent more on takeout food than they did on traditional groceries. Not only that, but millennials – the generation quickly taking over the baby boomers in size and buying power – indicate that they are more eager than most to order prepared takeout food. If companies can figure out how to reliably deliver that food without lots of overhead and outsource a lower skilled job to friendly robots, the way we get our food a decade from now will be drastically different.

Robot food delivery is probably just the beginning; as Marble’s modular build suggests, the opportunity for having other goods delivered is real and could easily be accomplished by a partnership with a healthcare system (medicine) or a retail giant like Target or Walmart. Amazon competition, anyone?

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