Walk down the street, and you might notice a white, four-wheeled box moving toward you. If you stand right in front of it, the robot will say, "Excuse me," and as you step away, it'll say, "Thank you."
The self-driving robot, part of a pilot program by Robby Technologies, delivers food, groceries and packages by following routes mapped by the company. With its multiple layers of sensors, it detects people from more than 16 feet away, slowing down and stopping when needed, and is monitored remotely from the company office.
The robot delivery service, which is being tested in a number of local cities including Palo Alto, could be a solution for high delivery fees, said Robby Technologies CEO and co-founder Rui Li, by automating the process, which will significantly decrease the cost of delivery.
Currently, the company works with a number of different delivery platforms. Once Robby receives an order, the robot drives to the location with a handler who monitors its path and performance. The handler will pick up the item and place it in the robot, after which the robot leaves for its destination.
"We're still in the testing phase for the interface between restaurants and the robot — how they can interact," Li said. "But as time goes by, we won't need a handler. We'll have either some employees from the restaurant place food items into the robot, or we'll have some other people who are dedicated to doing this for a certain area."
The idea for Robby Technologies came three years ago, when Li and co-founder Dheera Venkatraman began to take note of high delivery prices, even for "relatively cheap items."
Take food delivery, for example.
"Food itself costs only $10, but the delivery fee can be anywhere from $5 to $10 extra," Li said. "That percentage is too high compared to (the) food price itself."
Li and Venkatraman surveyed students and professionals in the Boston area and found that the percentage of people who order food delivery at least once a week is currently 30 percent. If they could reduce the delivery price by $1 or $2, that percentage would increase from 30 to 77 percent.
"There is indeed a huge demand for this," Li said. "We thought we could make some impact to the delivery industry and make deliveries affordable and convenient for everyone."
The two co-founders, who were students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the time, began working on the project early last year and moved to the Bay Area at the end of May 2016 for the Y Combinator summer program.
"People love it," Li said of the feedback for the pilot. "People are very friendly; they're curious. Some will ask questions about what that is; they take pictures or videos and share on social media."
Passersby found the robot's social feature particularly amusing, he added. "We're trying to make it an integral part of society," he said.
Andy Perry, operations manager of delivery service Postmates, said the company began working with Robby early this year and is excited at the rapid pace of progress.
"Robby is providing ... a good working solution for scaling our operations and being able to provide service to our growing customers base," Perry said. Currently, the robot's delivery time is about the same as that of its human counterpart, but Perry anticipates the robot's speed increasing in a few years and making up for "a lot of lost time that we currently see, not just with walking Postmates but also cycling and cars," which he said have to look for parking.
Perry is working with Robby to identify a senior living facility that could benefit from a robot making short-distance deliveries from nearby shops or pharmacies.
"We've definitely identified that the senior demographic is often overlooked when it comes to applications of new tech, but we feel that while there's this inherent application of delivery, the civic applications that are inherently there are almost just as valuable," Perry said. "It's important to try early on and get robots into as many uses as possible, so we can see if they can."
As of right now, the length of time needed for testing is unknown; Li said it could take a few months or more than a year. If partners and cities give their formal approval after the pilot program is complete, Robby Technologies plans to deploy more robots with more frequent deliveries.
"We want to make deliveries affordable and convenient for everyone, ... especially the elderly community," Li said. "We want our robots to be part of society, make positive impact by helping society and at the same time, boost local businesses. When the delivery price drops, a lot of local businesses will have access to this delivery's approach so that they can expand or boost their business further."