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Robots are now doing food deliveries

Much attention has been paid to flying delivery robot prototypes from Amazon and Google, but a San Francisco startup called Marble just released a product that — while a bit less futuristic — could turn out to win the robot delivery wars.

Marble has built a fleet of slow-rolling, washing-machine-size robots that are now doing food deliveries in San Francisco’s Mission District. The robots do the same job as human delivery people: They roll to a restaurant, pick up the food, and then roll along sidewalks to the customer. When the robot pulls up in front of the delivery address, the customer enters a PIN to open the robot’s cargo area and take out the food.

The technology is still very much a work in progress. Initially, Marble will send a human minder to walk alongside the robot, eliminating any potential cost savings from this approach. The robots are also monitored at all times by a remote operator who follows along via video camera. Plus, the robot is rather bulky — if these become commonplace, it’s easy to imagine sidewalks being clogged with delivery robots.

Marble’s food delivery robot.

But the potential here is big. Once the technology matures enough that this kind of delivery robot doesn’t need human minders, it could dramatically reduce the cost of making fast deliveries. Marble says it hopes to eventually expand beyond takeout to deliver cargo of all kinds.

Marble isn’t the only company building ground-based delivery robots. One of its leading competitors is Starship Technologies, which has had similar robots in San Francisco and Washington, DC, since January.

In the long run, this kind of technology could revolutionize the retail sector. Amazon has worked hard to offer two-day and sometimes one-day delivery times, but robots like this could allow online retailers to offer many more deliveries measured in hours or even minutes. UPS and FedEx trucks could be replaced by fleets of delivery robots, eliminating the need for a human driver.

A big question is whether ground-based or flying delivery drones are ultimately more practical. Flying drones are likely to have more serious safety, noise, and environmental concerns than ground-based drones, and they might wind up being more expensive to operate. On the other hand, a flying robot will almost always be able to get to its destination faster than a ground-based one, and people might ultimately find it more annoying to share their sidewalks with herds of ground-based drones than to have swarms of drones flying overhead.

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