- Refraction.ai is a startup in our town—Ann Arbor, Michigan—delivering food via autonomous vehicle, so we ordered to see it in action.
- By “autonomous vehicle,” we mean a three-wheeled robotic food box that can travel up to 15 mph.
- Delivery was seamless, if you don’t mind going outside to greet your autonomously delivered lunch.
Whether we like it or not, the robots are no longer coming; they’re here. And now more than ever, we’re sharing our streets with them, and they don’t just look like cars.
Startups around the world are looking to change how deliveries are made, whether that’s food, a package, groceries, or anything else you can dream up, through the use of small robots. Refraction is one of those companies.
Based in Ann Arbor—just down the road from C/D—the startup has been working on an autonomous food delivery robot and has just recently unrolled its pilot program of the service to the public. In the interest of seeing what it would be like for a robot to deliver us lunch, we contacted the company to see if they would arrange for us to test it out.
The pilot program is limited to people who live within 2.5 miles of the restaurant they’re ordering from, and currently, there are four restaurants in the downtown Ann Arbor area participating. Our office is outside that radius, so Refraction made an exception for us.
The autonomous vehicle that Refraction has developed differs quite a bit from the other autonomous delivery vehicles from other companies. The robot vehicle has three wheels, two in the front and one in the back, all of which are like a bicycle wheel. It’s about five feet tall, four and a half feet long, and about three feet wide. The three-wheel design helps with weight—about 100 pounds—which ultimately helps shorten the braking distance to five feet from 12 mph, Matthew Johnson-Roberson, the co-founder and CEO of Refraction, told C/D.
To navigate autonomously on public roads, the robot uses 12 cameras in addition to radar and ultrasound sensors, including lidar. The sensor suite is cheaply constructed; it costs Refraction around $4500 to build each vehicle, but Johnson-Roberson said that price should come down as the company expands.
Refraction’s robot, the REV-1, is completely autonomous using a system of a dozen cameras, radar, and ultrasonic sensors and can be tele-operated and monitored remotely. For now, though, when the vehicle is out for a delivery, a safety rider follows it with the ability to perform an emergency shut off. Johnson-Roberson said that throughout the testing, the safety rider has been beneficial in engaging the public and answering questions about the robot as its presence has become more and more prevalent in Ann Arbor.
Nonetheless, Johnson-Roberson said there haven’t been any issues so far with the testing of the robot and that the people of Ann Arbor have so far been fairly receptive to it. The city has become a hotbed for autonomous vehicle testing and development; Waymo tests its vehicles in areas near Ann Arbor, and on the University of Michigan campus, MCity tests its fully autonomous shuttles. Last year, Ford and Domino’s Pizza tested their autonomous delivery system in Ann Arbor.
The other advantage of testing in Ann Arbor is that Refraction has been able to test REV-1 in the snow, which it got to do in November following a substantial snowfall.
The REV-1’s behavior is similar to that of a bike: the company has followed the regulations and tried to emulate the behavior of electric bikes. The robot doesn’t travel on the sidewalk; it mainly keeps to bike lanes and the shoulder of roads but can drive in car lanes, all while traveling up to 15 mph.
We caught our first glimpse of the robot carrying our lunch out on a main road, and then followed it into our parking lot. It took the speed bumps (rumor has it, they were installed because of C/D) with ease before rolling up to our office and pulling up into an empty parking spot near our door.
As the robot arrives, a text is sent to the person who made the order with a code to open the door and access the food. Our order arrived barely still warm, but that was expected since delivering to our office was over a mile outside the company’s normal 2.5-mile service radius—and it was 20 degrees outside.
But other than that, the process was seamless. The food was easily accessed, buns were still sitting on their respective sandwiches, and it parked about as close as one could get to our front door. It was strange to not have a delivery person bring the food actually to our door, but it wasn’t too much of a hassle to go out to the parking lot for our lunch.
Refraction adds itself to an increasingly crowded space of autonomous delivery vehicles that aren’t cars. Starship Technologies has developed a delivery robot which throughout this year has been introduced to a number of college campuses across the country, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Pittsburgh, and Purdue University, among others.
In August, the food delivery service Postmates announced that they would test their own autonomous delivery system, Serve, in San Francisco. On the campus of UC Berkeley, Kiwibot has been delivering food since last year.
And that doesn’t include the companies working to create the technology to have autonomous cars make deliveries. Ford and GM have each been testing their autonomous technology for deliveries, as has Nuro, a Silicon Valley startup.
For now, the REV-1 is just deployed in Ann Arbor, but they are planning to move beyond the Midwest in the next three to six months with robots in Boston and Palo Alto. And although currently the company has just five vehicles in operation, they are planning to have 10 to 12 on the streets early next year.