These cute electric robots may soon deliver your dinner

By Michelle Lewis

Kiwibot is a last-mile delivery service that has completed over 150,000 food deliveries using electric semi-autonomous robots. Yesterday, the company announced its official expansion into San Jose, Miami-Dade County, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Each of the four cities will be given up to 10 robots with one human supervisor.

How does Kiwibot work?

Kiwibot delivers food using electric semi-autonomous robots. They look like cute lunchboxes on wheels with a cheeky little flag. (Come to think of it, I guess they are lunchboxes on wheels.) Kiwibot has built 400 robots since it launched in 2017 and deployed them on the University of California-Berkeley campus and in San Jose in 2020. It’s also been running pilot programs in the above four cities.

Kiwibots secure their cargo using a locking door. The robots open the Inner Container Door without human help at the restaurant. The restaurant staff then places the food inside the container. As soon as the food is secured inside, the robot automatically closes and locks the door.

When the Kiwibot reaches its delivery destination, it sends an app notification that allows the person to click “unlock door.” The door automatically opens, and the customer removes their food. Then the robot’s door closes and automatically locks again. 

Kiwibot has been charging $3.99 per delivery, a cost that businesses can choose to absorb or pass on to consumers.

Does Kiwibot have a bigger purpose?

Photo: Kiwibot

Yes. The company is partnered with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which launched a self-driving initiative in 2018.

Kiwibot and the Knight Foundation have been working to increase opportunities for locally owned businesses. They also want to provide more equitable access to food, medication, and other goods.

Further, Kiwibot and the Knight Foundation want to ensure that the robots are deployed in areas where they can operate safely among pedestrians, bicycles, and vehicles. 

What does Kiwibot mean by semi-autonomous?

TechCrunch explained in July 2020, when Kiwibot launched its pilot in San Jose:

The delivery bots are equipped with a camera and are capable of detecting objects and navigating around them. However, the bots are also supported and controlled remotely by humans in certain scenarios, who can monitor up to three robots remotely. These teleoperators, or supervisors, as Kiwibot calls them, provide path planning, a method of setting and adjusting way points along a route. They can also step in and take direct control of the bot when problems arise. The supervisors, many of which are located in Colombia, from where [CEO Felipe] Chavez and his cofounder Sergio Pachón originally hail, also control the bot on all traffic crossings, according to the company.

What’s the robots’ range, and how do they charge?

They can operate for at least 10 hours, and they can achieve a distance of up to 12.4 miles (20 km) within those 10 hours. They are completely electric and take four hours to charge. They charge on a 120v outlet.

Do the robots do anything else besides look cute and deliver burritos?

Yes. They map areas and collect sidewalk and infrastructure data using the Mobility Data Specifications (MDS) framework and an automated data collection system.

Further, Kiwibot’s robots could eventually share data about sidewalk conditions and vehicle and pedestrian traffic with city authorities, helping US cities become more accessible and safer.

How do we know the robots actually work?

Since June 2021, Kiwibot’s robots in the four cities have already traveled 1,455 miles, mapped 368 miles, and delivered 20,000 data points for city and county authorities.

Electrek’s Take

We cover electric vehicles. These robots are electric vehicles. And so far, so good, with Kiwibot’s deployment of these little guys.

Last-mile deliveries have skyrocketed, thanks to the pandemic. If the robots can operate on streets able to accommodate them and get gas cars off the streets and thus reduce emissions, congestion, and traffic, then we’re all for them. They’re an electric last-mile solution.

And as the US is – hopefully – on the brink of a major infrastructure overhaul, gathering data to roll out more efficient upgrades to city streets is only going to help. You get your burrito, your city finds out what needs fixing, everybody wins.