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Green rover, green rover, send my cheeseburger right over

UND could have robots delivering your fries and a Coke by next semester

UND students and Memorial Union employees Carsten Rolling (left) and Maho Tsukamoto were lucky to meet one of the first Kiwibots on campus Saturday. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The snow is blowing. And the temperature outside is barely breaking zero. The fuel ran out of that breakfast bagel well before lunch, yet you don’t want to leave the cozy confines of the Chester Fritz Library. (The fireplace is oh-so-nice.)

What’s a hungry college student to do?

You have some choices — and come next semester, you’ll have a whole lot more, said UND Dining Services Director Orlynn Rosaasen.

Because next semester, a rolling posse of rover robots likely will arrive on campus to be at your beck and call.

“The whole idea of a campus food delivery service is something I’ve looked at for years,” Rosaasen said. “The demand is definitely there, but until now, it just never penciled out. I couldn’t make it work.”

UND Dining Services Director Orlynn Rosaasen has a little fun by giving the Kiwibot a hug. Though the robots say only two phrases out loud — hello and thank you — they are full of personality. Their eyes flash hearts and stars, and they blink, wink and send all sorts of other messages on their “face.” Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

So, what’s different now?

Earlier, the only option might have required UND to hire its own delivery drivers to use state fleet vehicles for the door-to-door service. It was a pricey concept and a logistics nightmare; and that’s why it didn’t happen 10 years ago.

Nor did it happen more recently, Rosaasen said, after he first saw the roaming robots in action at a conference for members of the National Association of College & University Food Services.

“The hindrance at the time was the initial investment. It was a half-million dollars, and that was way too much for the University of North Dakota,” he said with a laugh. “Let’s see, ‘How many deliveries do I have to make to earn that money back?’ I could never justify that kind of expense.”

Even so, he thought the idea was genius, so he kept an eye on the industry and continued to explore the possibilities. In short order, a number of other startup companies joined the robot brigade, and those initial costs dropped significantly.

It was time to talk business.

The University now is negotiating with the AI-powered robotics company Kiwibot to bring 15 to 20 of the self-propelled units to campus, Rosaasen said.

A snow-covered sidewalk on Saturday is no problem for the Kiwibot, as the robots are equipped with four-wheel drive, said Kiwibot Operations Coordinator Sergio Mosquera. How well they’ll handle a North Dakota blizzard may be another story: “Hopefully, that doesn’t happen for the sake of the robots,” Mosquera said with a laugh. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

How do they work?

Rosaasen said the compact carts, which somewhat resemble a small cooler — except for the smiley face that blinks and flashes heart-shaped eyes — weigh about 40 pounds and navigate autonomously via GPS technology. They have four-wheel drive, and get this: the rear set of wheels can be swapped out for larger “snow” tires.

The robots are equipped with multiple sensors and cameras that allow them to stop on a dime to avoid collisions. Primarily, they run on sidewalks, but they can cross the street. And their speed limit tops out at about 4 mph.

Another plus is that the company allows its customers to brand their own fleet. Hawk La Carte, anyone?

Rosaasen said Kiwibot partners with the popular Grubhub food app, and the software allows both services to run on the same platform. In other words, users simply place an individual order on the app and then select the extra delivery option.

“We can see the monitors when the order is made,” he said. “The rovers will be parked outside — they don’t come inside the building — and the dining staff takes the food out, drops it in and closes the lid. And then the rover just takes off. They know where to go.”

The order also generates a code for the customer to enter once the cart arrives at its destination. In other words, your Chick-fil-A feast will be only a few clicks away.

The Kiwibot has space to carry a large food package and three drinks. The customer uses the Grubhub app to place their order. Once the Kiwibot arrives at its destination, a customer must punch in a code to get the cover to open. And if the Kiwibot senses trouble — say, someone trying to tip it over or steal its contents — beware. The Kiwibot immediately flashes a light and sounds a very loud alarm. (Trust us on that one.) Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Rosaasen says he believes the rovers will be the first to roam any campus in North Dakota. He knows of others in South Dakota and Wisconsin.

“I’ve heard stories where students on other campuses have kind of adopted them,” he said. “They go up to them and hug them. They’re just amazed. It’s the wowness and the cool factor that attracts people. I know they’re going to be extremely popular on our campus, too. And I say that because our winters can get cold.”

That definitely was the case one recent Saturday, when Kiwibot Operations Coordinator Sergio Mosquera brought the first Kiwibot to campus. He had come straight from Colombia — the country, and Kiwibot headquarters — to begin mapping the UND campus.

“I am happy to have this experience,” said Mosquera, dressed in a thin winter jacket, a Kiwibot baseball-style cap and fingerless gloves. “In my country, winter does not exist, so this is all new for me.”

And if the cheerful Kiwibot No. 4B004 could say more than “hello” and “thank you,” she would have told us “so far, so good” on maneuvering through the small snowdrifts on the sidewalks.

“(The Kiwibot) fits perfectly with this campus,” Mosquera said. “I witnessed how well it managed. The snow will not be a problem.”

Kiwibot Operations Coordinator Sergio Mosquera spent several days on campus last week to map out the likely paths the robots will take to reach their destinations. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Out of the gate


Rosaasen said the robotic rovers will be launched first out of the UND Memorial Union, delivering food prepped at the different restaurants there. Once they have the system down pat, he hopes to introduce them to the Wilkerson Dining Center.

“That’s my thought process,” he said. “Residence hall students are going to love them. I mean, it’s not bad, but the main dining complex is located a ways from the core of campus. If you’re on the other end, you have to walk or scooter back to eat.

“Well, now if you’re over (at the library), you might think, ‘Hey, why don’t I just use my meal plan to deliver my dinner here?’”

He’s sure busy faculty and staff will enjoy the extra convenience, too.

“For years, I’ve heard requests or comments from administrators as they’re getting their Jimmy John’s … ‘Well, I’d get lunch from you if you had delivery.’”

Working late? Have a small meeting and want to order in? No problem. A rover can deliver it hot and ready in under 20 minutes — and you don’t even have to tip the driver.

The way Kiwibot makes its money is through a small delivery charge, Rosaasen said. The company hires and pays its own employees to maintain the rovers, as well as corral and recharge them overnight at an existing storage site.

With very little overhead, the high-tech service also gives UND Dining Services all sorts of new opportunities to expand its food sales on campus. For example, the Memorial Union’s pizza venue now closes at 2:30 p.m., Rosaasen said, because it’s just not feasible to hire staff to prepare fresh pizza one slice at a time after the lunch rush.

“I could see us selling whole pizzas into the evening with these robots,” he said. “It creates some new opportunities for business, and maybe we could keep some of those sales on campus.”

You wonder: “Well, what about my light-ice, grande, nonfat caramel macchiato?” We thought you’d ask, but you’ll have to stay tuned. Rosaasen says negotiations are still percolating on that one.

The Kiwibot has headlights and also includes a tall flasher to help with safety and visibility. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

What else is new …

UND Dining Services already has launched a couple of other popular new concepts this year, Rosaasen noted.

For example, self-checkout micromarkets now are available in the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences and at the UND Flight Operations Center at Grand Forks International Airport.

So far, sales have been strong, he said. Customers can choose from a number of salty or sweet snacks, as well as fresh sandwiches and salads.

“It’s not like that regular convenience store food,” Rosaasen said. “It’s homemade and super fresh. We stock the coolers twice a week.”

Too cozy to leave your fireside perch to even open the library door to grab a rover order? Well, Rosaasen says, you also can tap into the new fresh-food vending machines on the first floor.