Why do college kids get all the cool robots?

Colleges and universities are increasingly signing contracts to become testbeds and early adopters for consumer-facing robots.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

If you have a kid heading to college in the fall, it might be time to have the talk. It's okay to experiment, but don't go crazy for the first robot you meet -- you'll have others.

That's because college campuses are fast emerging as a critical early testing ground for the robotics sector. The latest example comes via juice purveyor Jamba and Blendid, a robotic food service solutions provider. The companies will roll out their autonomous robotic kiosk locations at UCLA.

Jamba, which along with Walmart, is one of Blendid's early partners, sees a big advantage to a college rollout, part of an interesting trend industry-wide of using colleges as automation testbeds.

"Our robotic smoothie kiosks provide a new way for college campuses around the country to meet students' demand for fresh and nutritious on-the-go food options – where and when they want it," says Vipin Jain, CEO and co-founder of Blendid. "As we look to expand to even more colleges and universities, I'd love to see Jamba by Blendid kiosks become a standard food service option across U.S. college campuses in the years ahead."

I spoke to Vipin last year about the opportunities the pandemic unexpectedly opened for robotic food service providers, placing a premium on contactless service. Companies are moving swiftly to roll their robots out in a quest for early market share and limited investor dollars. The food robotics market, estimated at $1.9 billion in 2020, is expected to reach $4.0 billion by 2026. Technological advancements in robotics and AI, operational cost advantages, and major consumer and retailer shifts are driving the food industry to embrace automation more rapidly. A tight labor market and well-publicized worker shortages among restaurant employers are also hastening the shift. 

Colleges and universities have come to play an unexpectedly important roll as early adopters. Colleges are the perfect test bed for robots in many ways. Students tend to live well within a 30-minute radius, campuses are well structured, and administrations are able to approve rollouts that would often take many layers of bureaucratic wrangling at a municipal level. 

Another company, Starship Technologies, has robots on the campuses of Arizona State University, Purdue University, George Mason University, and Northern Arizona University. Since its launch, all campuses have increased the number of robots, dining options, and hours of operation to meet the high demand for the service. For the food delivery robot service provider, Integration with meal plans helps ensure a ready customer base. Campuses also offer an exceptional proof of concept for a variety of Starship's constituents, from investors to prospective customers to regional regulatory bodies that are approaching robot delivery with appropriate caution. 

And it's a two-way street: Colleges can advertise themselves as forward-thinking to their students and prospective students. Take a look at a college pamphlet next time you get a chance and see if you spot any robots. 

As for Jamba and Blendid, it's likely more colleges are coming. Says Geoff Henry, President of Jamba: "Colleges have always been a strong market for Jamba and have proved particularly successful with our Jamba by Blendid kiosks as tech-savvy college consumers embrace new robotic solutions."

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