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Robots delivering food at South Dakota State University

With labor shortages, South Dakota State University was forced to find a way to deliver food to students and faculty. The university decided on autonomous robots from Starship Technologies.

Doug Wermedal, associate vice president of student affairs for SDSU, said it kills two birds with one stone.

“One of the things we’ve been working on for a long time is some answers to the labor shortage we’ve experienced with our food service sites," he said, "but also offering some students employment in terms of advanced robotics.”

Robotics students can be employed to supervise the robots. Wermedal said that adds value to the program.

“Certainly, it is a convenient service, it's cost effective, it’s a buck ninety-nine plus 10 percent, so it's about what it costs for any other delivery service," Wermedal said. "But the chance to send our robotics students out or students with computer and engineering majors with this kind of experience, supervising an autonomous delivery system, that’s going to be an exciting qualification for those students.”

The robots travel all 500 acres across campus delivering food. They travel on the sidewalks and even cross the road in order to deliver food and drinks. Starship Technologies’ Site Launch Specialist Fausto Lopez compares the simplicity of ordering to Uber or DoorDash.

“You’re going to download the Starship app and once you download the app, you will go ahead and place a delivery based on which merchant is open," Lopez said.

SDSU currently offers robotic delivery from Starbucks, Papa John's and Panda Express.

“From there you’re going to pinpoint where you want this delivery to go," Lopez said.

The robot travels up to 4 miles per hour. The cameras on the inside dictate where the robot needs to go, and the robot can say "thank you" to a customer.

“You have to scan the barcode on the side," Lopez said. "It has two design barcodes with a specified robot number and then it opens up designed for your phone only so no one can open up that robot but you.”

Lopez said the technology is designed to securely deliver food in the wake of COVID-19.

“It’s one of those things that with these robots you can get your delivery straight from the merchant to you. There’s no other person that touches it, so the robots will deliver it for you.”

Lopez believes technology like this is a big step into the future.

“This is the first foot in the door to something that’s going to continue growing and something that’s going to be normalized in the next two to three years. This is the future. The future is now and the future is with Starship Technologies.”

Other campuses around the country have already employed food delivery robots. SDSU’s robots have been operating successfully for the past two weeks with 16 currently operational and another 16 coming soon.

Jordyn is a videographer with SDPB.