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Meet UCI’s Newest Employees: The Starship Food Delivery Robots

Starship Technologies, in partnership with UCI Dining Services, finished testing its autonomous “delivery drones” last month across UCI in preparation for their food delivery operations. 

Three robots were brought to campus the week of Feb. 16 and have completed mapping campus pathways and buildings. When the program is fully operational, UCI is expecting a fleet of 30 robots to operate across campus. According to UCI Dining Services, the robots — called Starships — will be specifically dedicated to food delivery.

“The plan right now is to have them deliver anywhere on campus, including the residence halls and the ACC apartments in East Campus,” said Lin Tang, UCI Dining Services Director. “We’re hoping to be able to have all the orders for all the locations basically. All the retail, meaning Panda, Subway, Starbucks, Jamba Juice, etc. … Any of the places in the Student Center, hopefully, and all the surrounding ones on campus.”

UCI must wait for the delivery of hardware and for the hiring of operators and technicians before the robots can start operating on campus. Tang said that there is no strict timetable for deployment, but the program may be operational by the spring.

According to the Starships’ website, the Starships traverse their route autonomously, using a combination of GPS and external cameras and sensors. They map streets, sidewalks and road crossings using a combination of Ultrasonic sensors, radar, time-of-flight cameras, and stereo cameras.  This data is recorded at over 2,000 frames per second and the internal mapping system allows it to understand its location to the nearest inch.

The Starships detect and navigate around pedestrians, road traffic and signals using machine learning. By collecting massive amounts of data and running it through multiple processes, the machine guesses the best possible outcome, with each encounter refining the process.

Robot operators shadow the Starships while they are tested. The operators support the robots throughout the shift by solving unexpected situations that may arise during delivery. Once the Starships become fully operational, they will travel on their own, with technicians operating remotely as needed.

“As we’ve seen, students want to do stuff, they’ll stick their leg in front of it, they’ll jump in front, try to test the robot … It’s always going to try to safely navigate around. And frankly, if it’s blocked, it’s not going to try to go through anything,” said Chris Neider, Senior Manager of Business Development for Starship Technologies.

According to Neider, the robots will have several features built in to prevent tampering and a locking lid to prevent theft

Ian Anzlowar is a City News Intern for the 2020 winter quarter. He can be reached at ianzlowa@uci.edu