New self-driving rovers are now bringing food delivery back to the University of Arizona campus and community six months after the school severed ties between GrubHub and the Russian robot company Yandex.
The rovers' return to campus comes after GrubHub inked a deal with the new Silicon Valley-based startup called Cartken, which rolled out its line of self-driving AI robots in spring 2021.
UA students, staff and faculty now have two options for food delivery – the rovers or human delivery service. The new Cartken robots began mapping the University of Arizona campus this past summer to make this possible.
“No one's remote controlling them on the back-end, so they have to learn with every route and every trip they take,” said Mari John, assistant director of retail development, contract management and corporate sponsorship for Arizona Student Unions. “They are programmed and required to take the path of least resistance, and have a 360-degree camera, so if they see you near them, they are going to slow down and/or stop depending on how close you are.”
There are five robots operating and delivering food from four dining options on campus: On Deck Deli, IQ Fresh, the Scented Leaf Tea House and Lounge and Sabor.
“We hope to very soon be up to 20 rovers, and then plan by the end of the semester to have close to 40 live and roving across campus to again deliver food to our students wherever they might be,” John said. “With school starting, we slowly launched our dining services again. The staff had to get trained, so literally just in the last couple of days this week the rovers have slowly started to deploy, and again in a very phased and systematic way, with a couple of rovers delivering food from a couple of restaurants, and then, as staff gets trained and as the new rovers come on board, the dining options and delivery ranges will increase.”
GrubHub and the UA cut ties with the Russian rover company Yandex last March after Russia invaded Ukraine. The robots had only been part of GrubHub’s campus delivery program for a few months at the time.
“Last year, the rover program started because of our partnership with GrubHub,” John said. “GrubHub has brought rovers to other campuses, specifically at [Ohio State University].”
Ohio State, located in Columbus, Ohio, was the first public university to obtain the Yandex rovers through their partnership with GrubHub. The UA was the second.
“We wanted to be the second campus if we can't be the first to get these,” John said. “It was really cool, but then the whole issue with Russia and Ukraine happened.”
“We never had a relationship with Yandex, we just did through GrubHub, so that's kind of what put the rovers on pause, but when they did launch it was a really cool thing. It's another way that we, as the University of Arizona Student Unions, are trying to provide another service for students,” John added. “Students are busy, the Student Union is busy and people are studying and having classes all over campus, so since we already utilize GrubHub for pickup and delivery orders, we wanted to be able to have another delivery option available via these rovers. Again, it’s just another way to be tech-forward and cool, but to also provide an additional service to help get food elsewhere on campus.”
Arizona Student Unions remains hopeful about expanding their rover delivery services beyond Speedway Boulevard, located on the north end of campus, to serve students in the Eller College of Management, James E. Rogers College of Law, the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering building and health sciences buildings. The rovers will travel using underpasses to get to these campus locations and avoid traffic accidents.
“This would be really cool, but we have to start small for a second to let them learn, and then extend a little more here, and then a little more there,” John said. “This will be really, really useful, especially for those students over there.”
The new Cartken rovers are similar in size and stature to the Yandex rovers.
“They're similar looking, but these are really cute – they look like they're smiling, and they've got a little flag, so they're super fun,” John said.
The addition of the Cartken rovers also allows UA students to use their meal plans and CatCash for GrubHub deliveries.
“Everything is integrated,” said Katie Schoeben, assistant director of marketing for Arizona Student Unions. “We want students to use the GrubHub lockers on campus, we want you to use your GrubHub app and we want you to use your meal plan.”
Forty-five GrubHub lockers can be found in the Student Union Memorial Center, with 30 located next to Nrich Urban Market, which offers fresh pressed juices, seasonal produce, freshly ground nut butters, infused waters, brewed tea and botanicals, probiotic-rich frozen yogurt and grab n' go meals and snacks. There are 15 more lockers located next to Sabor and others in the Red & Blue Market and the UA Global Center.
When the previous rovers debuted on campus, students acted like they were their pets and took care of them.
“It was really fun to see the students taking pictures and selfies with them, and it was kind of exciting to see this technology on campus,” John said. “The students stop and they let the rover go by them, and it's cute. The biggest issue, I think, is that the rovers are hesitant, so no one really knows who's going first. So when the rovers stop, there's like a little bit of a mini-traffic jam, but everyone just goes on their merry way.”
*El Inde Arizona is a news service of the University of Arizona School of Journalism.