Autonomous bike bots to delivery grub and groceries

You probably haven't interacted with a delivery robot yet. For most, that will change.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

You probably haven't used a delivery robot yet. Few have, but it's looking increasingly like that may change -- at least for city dwellers in dense urban environments. 

The footprints of companies offering autonomous mobile robots to deliver food and groceries, while still small, continues to expand thanks to pandemic-related restrictions on dining in and shifting attitudes on contactless service, and companies are jockeying to be the as-a-service robot of choice for consumers and local businesses. We've seen expanding pilot programs announced from nearly every delivery robot developer, and today we add REV-1, a lightweight, bike-like delivery robot from startup Refraction AI, which is offering free delivery within Ann Arbor from grocery store Produce Station.

Refraction is the creation of two University of Michigan professors, Matthew Johnson-Roberson and Ram Vasudevan, who say they've developed a safer, more cost-effective solution for last mile logistics than anything in the current delivery paradigm.

"We have created the Goldilocks of autonomous vehicles in terms of size and shape," CEO and cofounder Matthew Johnson-Roberson told ZDNet last July. "Our platform is lightweight, nimble and fast enough to operate in the bike lane and on the roadway, and we are tackling regional inclement weather patterns that inhibit or slow down other AV solutions."

That kind of differentiation is going to be crucial as competitors line up to compete for early market dominance. The availability of autonomous delivery via robot is still heavily limited by a patchwork of municipal regulations and allowances, but COVID-19 has most assuredly pushed market adoption into the fast line while paving a way for savvy brands to build bridges with local governing bodies. It's noteworthy that Refraction is not charging for this pilot service in Ann Arbor.

Customers in the delivery area can place an autonomous delivery order via this link and receive a text message with a unique code to open the robot when it arrives and delivery updates throughout the process. When the REV-1 arrives at its destination, the customer is notified to meet the robot at the curb and grab their grocery bags by inputting the unique code they received. 

"Our expansion into grocery delivery was a no-brainer during this time when the need for contactless delivery is so strong," said Matthew Johnson-Roberson, co-founder and CEO of Refraction AI. "We're really happy to provide a safer solution for grocery shopping, especially for the at-risk members of our community. Through this partnership with Produce Station, we'll be gathering insight and data to further expand our grocery delivery model." 

Refraction's grocery delivery service builds on partnerships with Ann Arbor restaurants like Miss Kim and Tio's Mexican Cafe. The autonomous restaurant delivery service has seen an uptick in demand since March when shelter-in-place restrictions were put in place, with three-to-four times as many orders as before. 

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