In the first days after a fleet of 25 delivery robots descended on George Mason University’s campus in January, school officials could only speculate about the machines’ long-term impact.
The cooler-size robots from the Bay Area start-up Starship Technologies — which were designed to deliver food on demand across campus — appeared to elicit curious glances and numerous photos but not much else.
It was clear, officials said at the time, that more time and more data would be necessary to understand whether the robots would change the campus culture or become a forgettable novelty.
Today, some of that data emerged for the first time. In the two months since the robots arrived at the Fairfax, Va.-based school, an extra 1,500 breakfast orders have been delivered autonomously, according to Starship Technologies and Sodexo, a company that manages food services for GMU on contract and works closely with the robots.
“Research has shown that up to 88 percent of college students skip breakfast, primarily because of lack of time, but that number is starting to turn around when delivery robots arrive on campus,” Starship Technologies said in a statement released Monday.
“This follows a similar pattern seen at corporate campuses where delivery robots were added,” the statement added, referring to an uptick in breakfast orders.
The robots make food deliveries all over the 800-acre campus, school officials say. They’re frequently seen making the 15-minute trip from campus restaurants to a handful of nearby dorms, as well as to other buildings across campus, where students meet them en route to class.
Students took advantage of the service from the beginning.
During the first day of deliveries at GMU, the machines were flooded by so many dinner orders that school officials had to pull the plug, shutting off orders so that robots weren’t operating late into the night, far behind schedule. Each robot is opened using a delivery code and can carry as much as 20 pounds — the equivalent of about three shopping bags of goods, Starship Technologies said.
Two months later, breakfast has replaced dinner as the go-to meal for robot delivery. The question is why.
Sodexo officials have noted that college students are prolific users of food delivery apps and place a high value on convenience and having access to multiple options when they dine. During the morning hours, restaurant experts say, there is generally more emphasis on speed than any other part of the day. Combine college students’ love of food delivery with chaotic morning routines, and perhaps you have a perfect recipe for robots.
“Breakfast is an easy meal to miss. Imagine you’re running late for class or you don’t want to leave your bed after an evening of ‘studying,’ " Starship Technologies said in a statement emailed to The Washington Post. “Our robots allow the breakfast to come to you, at a time you want. We’ve found this to be very popular with students to date at GMU.”
Starship Technologies says GMU is the first campus in the country to incorporate robots into its student dining plan. With a growing number of students using delivery services such as Uber Eats and DoorDash, the robots — which travel 4 mph and make deliveries in 15 minutes or less — are part of an ambitious plan to keep some of that business on campus. The hope, company officials said in January, was to replicate the fleet elsewhere.
“We’re trying to say, why can’t we do it and capture part of those sales also?” Mark Kraner, executive director of campus retail operations, told The Washington Post in January. “It will benefit the students and the businesses paying rent here on campus.”
How does the delivery system work? The robot’s $1.99 delivery fee — which students can pay through their meal plan — goes to Starship Technologies, and GMU receives a percentage of the food sales. School officials say more sales means more money for the university.
The robots also provide campus officials with valuable data showing what time students are eating, where that food is coming from and how meal plans are being used. Though that information won’t be monetized by the school, school officials say, it could lead to changes in how the university serves students over time.
Starship Technologies also announced Monday that a new fleet of more than 30 robots is launching today at Northern Arizona University’s Flagstaff campus.
“We’ve been very pleased with how quickly Starship has been embraced on college campuses,” Ryan Tuohy, the senior vice president of business development at Starship, said in Monday’s statement. “These campuses are hubs of innovation and activity, with both students and faculty needing convenient and flexible services.”