At most universities, meal plans allow college students to take advantage of on-campus cafeterias or chow down at local restaurants.
Now, thousands of students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, will have another dining option at their disposal: on-demand food delivery via an autonomous robot on wheels.
The school has received a fleet of 25 delivery robots that can haul up to 20 pounds each as they roll across campus at 4 mph, according to Starship Technologies, the Estonia-based robotics company that created the delivery vehicles. The company - which claims its robots can make deliveries in 15 minutes or less - says the school is the first campus in the country to incorporate robots into its student dining plan and has the largest fleet of delivery roots on any university campus.
The cost per delivery: $1.99.
"Students and teachers have little free time as it is, so there is a convenience for them to have their food, groceries and packages delivered to them," said Ryan Tuohy, Starship Technology's senior vice president of business development. "Our goal is to make life easier, whether that means skipping the line, eating lunch on the lawn rather than in the cafe, or finding the time to eat better when studying for exams."
"Commuters can even meet the robot on their way into class," he added.
Robots delivering food are becoming more common on college campuses. This month, students at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, began ordering snacks and beverages for the first time from a bright-colored roving robot on wheels known as the "Snackbot." At the University of California Berkeley, a food delivery company called Kiwi launched its robots on campus last year - before going viral after one notable mishap.
If you live in the District of Columbia or Redwood, California, Starship Technology's small, boxy robots - which bear some resemblance to an Igloo cooler - may look familiar to you. The machines were part of a pilot program last year that delivered meals from local restaurants in both cities, becoming a fixture on local sidewalks in some neighborhoods. In Britain, the company is using its technology to deliver packages as well.
The company's app allows George Mason students to order food from places such as Blaze Pizza, Starbucks and Dunkin', as well as a grocery store, though the list of options is supposed to increase in the coming weeks, according to organizers. Once an order has been placed, users drop a pin where they want their delivery to be sent. The robot's progress can be monitored using an interactive map. Once the machine arrives, users receive an alert, allowing them to unlock the robot using the app.
To navigate the campus, robots rely on artificial intelligence, ultrasonic sensors and nine cameras. Two-way audio on board allows users to communicate with "human teleoperators" who monitor the robots from afar and can take over the machine at any moment, according to VentureBeat. The robots can cross streets, climb curbs, navigate around obstacles and operate in rain and snow, the company said.
To launch the delivery program, Starship Technologies partnered with Sodexo, a company that manages dining on George Mason's campus. Jeff McKinley, Sodexo district manager for George Mason University, told Digital Trends that the delivery robots are "at the forefront of changing trends."
"While that excitement is certainly a plus, we believe the program as a whole absolutely has staying power. Delivery services are everywhere, and are truly being driven by demand from this younger generation - and yet it is something that isn't being done on many university campuses," McKinley said. "You can get food delivered from off campus, but what about the food on campus? This program is the answer to that question."