Delivery robots help Ann Arbor restaurants weather COVID crisis

U-M startup says robotic food deliveries have quadrupled

May 8, 2020
Written By:
Gabe Cherry

ANN ARBOR—Until the robots roll up, Korean eatery Miss Kim looks like any other COVID-stilled storefront in downtown Ann Arbor, with chairs upended on tables and hastily scrawled signs papering the windows. Inside, chef and managing partner Ji Hye Kim, a University of Michigan alum, cooks takeout orders.

While the restaurant does a brisk carryout business, Kim says she brings in less than half the revenue she did before the pandemic closed the dining room.

Business is booming, however, for the trickle of three-wheeled, autonomous REV-1 delivery robots that silently park themselves at Miss Kim’s curb, ready to be loaded with food before they wheel away to preprogrammed destinations. Refraction AI, a U-M startup that began delivering food in late 2019, says its pilot deployment of eight robots is doing four times as many runs since the crisis began.

Miss Kim

Miss Kim

“We had no idea how important they would become as restaurants struggle to get through the crisis and we all work to minimize person-to-person contact,” said Matthew Johnson-Roberson, co-founder of Refraction AI and a U-M associate professor of naval architecture and engineering.

Refraction AI was co-founded late last year by Johnson-Roberson and mechanical engineering assistant professor Ramanarayan Vasudevan, with the help of U-M’s Office of Technology Transfer. Miss Kim is one of five restaurants that use the robots for some of their Ann Arbor deliveries. About 500 customers are participating in the program; they order food through a custom-designed app.

The battery-powered robots have a top speed of about 15 miles per hour and operate mainly in bike lanes. Their low speed enables them to use inexpensive camera-based navigation systems, making their cost feasible for a delivery service.

Refraction AI has installed UV sterilizing lights in the robots’ food compartments, and now wipes down the robots between deliveries, but the delivery system is otherwise unchanged from the restaurants’ perspective.

“With a robot, they pull up, we drop the food in, close it and it’s on its way. I think it’s probably safer for our staff too, and I like that”

“With a robot, they pull up, we drop the food in, close it and it’s on its way. I think it’s probably safer for our staff too, and I like that,” Kim said.

End users like Jessica Sendra say the REV-1s have been a valuable option as the coronavirus pandemic has stretched delivery networks to their limit. Sendra has been getting groceries delivered through Refraction AI’s recently launched partnership with Ann Arbor market The Produce Station.

“It’s really hard to get a grocery delivery slot from anybody right now, so when I heard they were looking for people, I said ‘yes, definitely,'” Sendra said. “They sterilize everything and you just flip open the lid, pull out your groceries, close it and it goes on its way. It’s very easy.”

For Refraction AI, however, adapting to the age of COVID hasn’t been so seamless. The company has had to rethink the logistics of its entire business to keep running. The staff is building robots as fast as it can and Johnson-Roberson says it has been a challenge for its 15 employees to adapt and keep up.

Assembly workers at Refraction AI’s space in downtown Ann Arbor now work tag-team style, with only one employee working on a robot at any given time. The two employees—called “tele-ops drivers”—that monitor the robots via a wireless data connection now work from home, using a remote setup that enables them to take control of the delivery vehicles if they get into a situation that their autonomous systems can’t navigate.

Johnson-Roberson, for his part, is immersed in a world of video chats, as the very hands-on business of building and operating robots is increasingly done electronically.

“Building robots is an incredibly physical task,” he said. “You’re always making changes, testing, trying something else. Trying to keep that iteration cycle going remotely is a challenge. But it also forces us to really lean into all this technology that we’ve created.

“We’re finding that we don’t necessarily have to lay people off or slow down, we just need to find new ways of doing things. I think we’ve been pretty successful at that, and I hope we’re helping our customers do the same.”

The company has turned to Roush Industries of Livonia, Michigan, to ramp up production. Roush brought in a dedicated crew to build the robots’ carbon fiber exterior shells with the goal of having 25 robots on the road by mid-summer.

“In this crisis, we’re all seeing how some are putting themselves at risk so that others can enjoy the benefits,” Johnson-Roberson said. “I’m hoping that we can build models that are more ethical, more sustainable and more just, and I hope that this is a moment that catalyzes roboticists to play a role in that by trying as hard as they can to push the technology from the lab out there into the real world.”


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