Pandemic cravings: What robots delivered in 2021 by region


Starship Robotics

Look, it was a weird year. We were supposed to be emerging from a socio-political cataclysm, supposed to be getting back on track, but in a lot of ways the drudgery just kept on keeping on. Which is why it makes a lot of sense that comfort food ranked high on the list of items folks ordered from shops and restaurants that were then delivered by an emergent class of autonomous delivery robots.

If you live in a city or dense suburb and don’t have delivery robots in your area yet, brace yourself: They’re coming. Delivery bots are designed to reduce car traffic and increase efficiency for last-mile urban delivery. They’re also pretty amazing data collection devices, which advocates say will help streamline operations and reduce waste but will may also lead to profound privacy worries in the near future. One of the leading providers in the field, Starship Technologies, recently released its 2021 Robot Wrap Up “highlighting the most popular and quirky requests and orders” that its fleet of more than 1,000 robots around the world have received in the past year.

And yeah … comfort food.

In the U.S. that meant things like boneless chicken wings, which ranked most popular in the western states, and curly fries, which topped orders in the midwest. Chicken fingers were popular in the east and the south. Interestingly, pizza didn’t make the cut on Starship’s most-ordered list, which almost certainly says more about the distribution of the technology than market trends. In fact, pizza is having its own automation makeover, and owing to the fact that pizza preparation and handling is distinct from that of many other fast foods, which are fried, autonomous pizza making and delivering technology seems endemic to the sector rather generalized (see: 2022 will be the year of the pizza-making robot).

When you look internationally, the picture starts to change (and the U.S., perhaps not surprisingly, doesn’t come out looking very healthy). Among British consumers the most popular items delivered by Starship’s fleet were related to breakfast and included things like bread, eggs, and bananas. Bananas!

One of the primary markets for Starship’s robots has been college campuses. That’s because local regulations are still a patchwork of inconsistent or non-existent guidelines governing the use of robots on public streets. Colleges, however, are contained ecosystems often with their own governing authorities.

It was, of course, a tough year for college kids, who once again saw much of campus life cancelled among quarantine orders. Perhaps that’s why the record for the most orders by any individual goes to an unidentified individual at Arizona State University, who placed 230 orders with Starship during 2021. Go Sun Devils …

Oregon State students claim the dubious record of having the most late night orders. (Study sessions maybe?) And parents of Northern Arizona University students will be proud to know that their students placed the most early morning orders.

What does all this data tell us about robot delivery now and in the future? Not much, honestly. Though Starship has the most widely distributed delivery fleet, the footprint is still fairly small. But it is growing, and the volume is now becoming hard to ignore. Starship robots travelled, in aggregate, more than three million miles making deliveries in 2021, which the company proudly boasts is 13 trips to the Moon. That accounts for 100,000 road crossings every day and, over the lifetime of the company, which was founded in 2014, more than two million commercial deliveries globally.

Now that 2022 is upon us, with a fresh wave of news about a new variant and unseen dimensions of unrest and chaos, it’s a safe bet we’ll see another important growth milestone for autonomous delivery. Comfort food anyone?

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