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College Campus Tries Out Robot Delivery


Delivery robots have been popping up in high-end hotels. Now they are making their way to a younger clientele. Patrick Madden of member station WAMU reports from one university in Northern Virginia.

PATRICK MADDEN, BYLINE: George Mason University looks like any other big college campus - tall buildings, dorms, green grass and wide sidewalks where streams of students make their way to classes, except here on this campus, there's something not so ordinary - robots.

STARSHIP DELIVERY ROBOT: Hello. Here's your delivery.

MADDEN: This is one of several dozen Starship food delivery robots here on campus. Picture a cooler on wheels that resembles R2-D2, if you're a "Star Wars" fan. This one was kind enough to bring me doughnuts and coffee.

STARSHIP DELIVERY ROBOT: Thank you. Have a nice day.

MADDEN: For the students at George Mason, these little robots are a trip.

GRACE PERREIRA-PLAZA: I think it's pretty cool and kind of adorable to be honest.

MADDEN: Twenty-year-old student Grace Perreira-Plaza says, at first, students were obsessed with these little bots, taking pictures, selfies, dressing them up for the holidays. Now...

PERREIRA-PLAZA: We find it actually a little bit normal now just seeing them go by. It's like, oh, there they are.

MADDEN: George Mason University says it's the first college in the U.S. to incorporate robots into its student dining plan. The school is partnering with food-service provider Sodexo for the program. It works like this. Instead of, say, walking to the campus Dunkin' Donuts or the Subway sandwich shop, you can place that order from an app, and the robot will bring it to you anywhere on campus. Mark Kraner, head of the school's retail operations, says, when he was first approached about the idea, he couldn't resist.

MARK KRANER: This is going to be a fun ride. We knew the students would just jump all over it.

MADDEN: For the robots, perhaps, the biggest hurdle has been crossing the main road that cuts through campus. But these robots are able to adapt and learn.

KRANER: Working with their algorithms that if they see a student start across the road, they'll be right behind them. So they are learning.

MADDEN: The company behind these robots, Starship Technologies, is planning to roll out these robotic food delivery systems at other schools and corporate campuses. Mark Touhy, an executive at Starship, says the goal of this technology is to save people time.

MARK TOUHY: I think, like most technologies, they'll quickly become taken for granted and just a part of our everyday lives.

MADDEN: And that's basically what happened at George Mason. The college students don't seem to bat an eye when these things scooter along delivering coffee and doughnuts.

STARSHIP DELIVERY ROBOT: I'm a Starship delivery robot.

MADDEN: For the rest of us, it might take some time getting used to. For NPR News, I'm Patrick Madden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Patrick Madden