More than three decades later, a California campus is embracing a kind of food delivery — via robot. On Wednesday, students at University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., will be able to order snacks and beverages for the first time from a bright-colored roving robot on wheels known as the “Snackbot.”
Its stout body perched atop six small wheels, the electric Snackbot resembles some combination of an Igloo cooler and a Volkswagen Microbus. Or perhaps a NASA-built vehicle designed for traversing lunar surfaces. The electric vehicle includes a camera and headlights and can travel 20 miles on a single charge, even up hills and in the rain, according to PepsiCo, which partnered with robot-making startup Robby Technologies to launch the campus delivery program.
Scott Finlow — vice president for innovation and insights at PepsiCo Foodservice — said the autonomous delivery vehicle taps into two trends among college students: a growing desire for healthier food and a desire for “on-the-go sustenance," the result of students becoming less inclined to eat three fixed meals each day.
“Whether it is outside a dorm room, outside a lecture hall or outside the cafeteria or library, now students will be able to get food delivered to them,” Finlow said, noting that the company will start out with three robots on campus but may increase that number over time. "We worked hard to design something simple that only requires students to download a Snackbot app and plug in their university email. "
College students aren’t the only ones embracing food delivery services. With the sudden rise of services such as Uber Eats, Grubhub and DoorDash, students of all ages have begun bypassing traditional cafeteria offerings in favor of food delivery apps on their smartphones. With dozens of deliveries arriving on campus each day, one high school was even forced to ban the apps' use on campus, according to the Sacramento Bee.
“We had to stop what we’re doing, check them in and find the kid whose food it was,” Granite Bay High School Principal Jennifer Leighton told the paper in 2017. “We’re not equipped to deal with that. It’s a disruption.”
She added: “It’s not our job to find a kid and make sure he knows his lunch is here.”
Instead of interrupting classes, the Snackbot will follow a less invasive delivery model, Finlow said, noting the “rolling vending machine” doesn’t charge a delivery fee. After downloading the Snackbot app and placing an order, students can select from 50 designated delivery locations across the 175-acre campus.
What’s on the Snackbot menu? Finlow said the machine will sell the same items that are found inside PepsiCo’s Hello Goodness vending machines, including: Smartfood Delight, Baked Lay’s, SunChips, Pure Leaf Tea, Bubly, LIFEWTR and Starbucks Cold Brew.
Users will be able to track their order and open the machine’s lid using a button in the app, but meeting the robot within a particular delivery window is key. The robot will only linger at a delivery location for 10 minutes before moving on to its next customer.