Service Delivery Robots Helping People Social Distance in Frisco

Experts say the robots could also be paving the way for how we could do business even after the pandemic is over.

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It’s become clear the pandemic is not a quick fix.

That’s why businesses are looking at longer-term ways to limit contact between people to prevent the further spread of the virus. This is where contactless technology comes into play.

If you’re out and about in Frisco lately, you’ve probably seen something a little odd-looking making the rounds.

“There’s like three or four of them running around our neighborhood and I was like, what in the world!” said Frisco resident Lisa Hampshire. “It’s amazing just to see the technology and how much it’s changed over the last few years."

She ordered groceries through a service robot, one of about 20 that started making contactless deliveries on Friday. The robots are delivering food and groceries from shopping plazas near Teel Parkway to homes within a one-mile radius.

“It’s just an easy convenient safe way to get something delivered,” Hampshire said.

Lisa Hampshire and her family observe a service robot at it makes a delivery of groceries to their home in Frisco. (Photo by: Alanna Quillen, KXAS)

The robots are helping people practice those social distancing guidelines but experts also said it could also be paving the way for how we could do business even after this is all over.

The service robots are the pride and joy of California-based Starship Technologies. The company normally has a contract to make food deliveries on UT Dallas’ campus and has been operating on campus for the last several months.

But since campus closed down due to the pandemic, they've accelerated a plan they already had to expand to Frisco.

“It’s sort of gave us the opportunity to expand or accelerate what was kind of already our long-term plan, which is to take this delivery service to local neighborhoods,” said Rob Buehler, director of sales for Starship Technologies.

This tech is nothing new. Many companies have utilized artificial intelligence in various ways over the years. These particular service robots with Starship Technologies, which launched in 2014, have been working on university campuses and cities across the country and world for the last few years.

The company typically operates food and grocery delivery on university campuses before expanding into neighboring cities. The inside cabin of the robot is insulated and there are slots to secure products and keep beverages upright. Robots are also sanitized, monitored and picked up at the end of the day by a Starship team based in Dallas.

Orders are placed on the Starship Deliveries app on a smartphone and all of the payment and processing is handled electronically.

“It’s a little bit like Uber. They drop a pin in the app to let us know where they’re located," said Buehler. “We’ve done over 100,000 deliveries with the robots, we’ve traveled over 500,000 miles, and crossed 5 million streets. So in a lot of ways, the future is here."

UT Dallas mechanical engineering professor Yonas Tadesse said the pandemic has called attention to the need for this type of contactless technology.

"Robots and autonomous system can help in many ways. We are replicating ourselves in these machines," he said.

He’s been studying robotics for the past 15 years and has been working with students on developing humanoids, biorobots and smart systems in a lab at UTD. Some can portray emotion using mechanics that mimic human expressions while others can pick up objects the way a human can.

“We wrote many papers explaining that they will emerge in society,” he said.

He said he hopes that more companies and researchers will invest time and research into exploring contactless technology and robotics.

"This should be encouraged and then more funding will accelerate the research so that we have solutions," he said.

For now, businesses like Hurts Donut Company in Frisco are taking advantage of this safer alternative to help customers follow social distancing guidelines. Owner Keith Selby said he's seen a great response in customers utilizing the delivery robots.

“We know from the minute the donuts leave to when they arrive it’s a touchless environment,” he said. “It’s kind of amazing, this kind of cutting edge technology“

The robots work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day. Starship said it plans to expand across more parts of Frisco in the next few weeks.

The company said it also hopes to expand to other parts of DFW in the coming months and years.

*Map locations are approximate, central locations for the city and are not meant to indicate where actual infected people live.

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