Apple and Google alums have unleashed self-driving food delivery robots in San Francisco
If you order food on Yelp Eat24 in San Francisco, you might be asked if you’re open to a robot delivering your order.
Tthe next time you place an order on Yelp’s Eat24 food delivery app in San Francisco, you might just get a text that reads: “Are you okay with having a robot delivering your order?”
On April 12, robotics startup Marble will unleash its fleet of shopping-cart-sized, self-driving robots to take over some of the work done by human couriers at Yelp Eat24, the food-delivery service bought by Yelp for $134 million in 2015. The bots ferry food from restaurants in the Mission and Potrero Hill neighborhoods to customers nearby.
Marble, which has a team that includes former employees of Apple and Google, is the first company to bring on-demand delivery robots to the streets of San Francisco. The startup faces competition from Starship Technologies, which has smaller robots that began making food deliveries in Silicon Valley in March, as well as Dispatch, whose delivery robots were spotted learning the streets of San Francisco in February.
Business Insider visited Marble’s headquarters to see how the bot works.
Before they tackled the challenge of getting people’s ramen noodles delivered faster, the cofounders of Marble robotics startup set their sights a little higher — in space.
Matt Delaney, Jason Calaiaro, and Kevin Peterson met at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, where they worked on self-driving cars for the DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition that’s credited with launching the original autonomous vehicles.
Source: Business Insider
They pursued their separate interests over the years. Calaiaro and Peterson won contracts with NASA to design and build spacecraft for exploring the Moon, while Delaney went on to work as an engineer at Apple. They reunited in 2015 to develop a delivery bot.
The trio joined forces with Harrison Shih, a Google alum who helped launch and manage Google+ among other products, and who is now head of product and operations at Marble.
Delaney, the former Apple employee, says their robot takes a different approach than the Starship bots roaming the streets of Silicon Valley. The Marble bot uses a “full suite” of sensors, he says.
“In an urban environment, it’s quite busy. There’s a lot of things to see. Certain sensors have certain strengths,” Delaney says. The robot combines cameras, LIDAR (which uses lasers to measure distance), and ultrasonic sensors to perceive the world around it.
While we don’t know much about how competitor Dispatch’s robots work, Business Insider got the chance to see Starship Technologies demo its bot in Silicon Valley in March. The robot uses nine cameras and ultrasonic sensors, but is not equipped with LIDAR technology yet.
The team drove the robot around the Mission and Potrero Hill to map the area it would need to navigate. The robot updates the map with new road features after every trip.
In April, Marble teamed up with Yelp Eat24 as its first delivery partner. It serves four restaurants in San Francisco: DOSA, Truly Mediterranean, Aslam’s Rasoi, and Alhamra.
Harrison tells Business Insider the number of Marble robots in the field changes all the time. There will be only a small handful of bots making Yelp Eat24 deliveries upon launch.
When a customer places an order at one of the restaurants that Marble serves, they receive a text from Yelp EAT24 asking, “Are you okay with having a robot delivering your food and meeting it outside? Please respond YES or NO in the next couple of minutes.”
The robot leaves Marble’s headquarters in Potrero Hill for the restaurant and texts the restaurant when it’s outside. An employee can unlock the robot with the four-digit code.
Marble and Yelp Eat24 declined to comment on the average delivery time, though the Marble team expects the robot to perform on par with a human courier in the future.
When the robot arrives at the customer’s destination, it sends a different four-digit code to unlock the storage bin. The food is kept in insulated bags to keep it warm.
Marble is still working on perfecting its robot. It’s noticeably larger that the Starship Technologies bot completing food deliveries for DoorDash in Redwood City, California.
But it makes incremental improvements every day. On a recent trial run, the startup accepted an order that included beverages. The team realized the bot needed a cup holder.
They created one using laser cutters. Now, Marble can make spill-free deliveries.
On April 12, Marble announced a $4 million round of seed funding that will allow the startup to continue development of the robot fleet and expand delivery across San Francisco.
For now, the robots will be accompanied by Marble employees in the field. It remains to be seen how a self-driving bot will perform in a lively city with lots of moving vehicles and people.
Vandalism and theft may also be a concern. In San Francisco, a city divided by those who work in tech and those who are being displaced by the industry, it’s not hard to imagine that a self-driving robot becomes a target for harassment from protesters — or even just bored kids.
Delaney says the company is on a mission to bolster the local economy — rather than take jobs away from humans — by making delivery more efficient and affordable for restaurants.
“We’re creating a system that allows people to be more productive,” Delaney says. “I don’t believe in a world where we’re gone. We’re always going to be at the heart of and in control of these systems.”
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