Chick-fil-A pilots delivery of autonomous robot with Refraction AI

As drone delivery takes off in the suburbs, another type of compact, driverless vehicle is making its way into cities.

Ground robot delivery companies are transforming the urban last mile by using every part of the road to make deliveries. Sidewalks, cycle paths, margins, etc. – Autonomous robots from Starship Technologies, Nuro, Kiwibots and others are smart enough to make deliveries anywhere. And they’re being deployed by brands like Safeway, Dominos, and merchants using delivery platforms like Uber Eats (NYSE: UBER) and FedEx (NYSE: FDX).

Add Chick-fil-A to the list. The maker of one of America’s most popular chicken sandwiches is teaming up with Refraction AI, one of the newest players in the growing robot delivery space, to deliver from two Chick-fil restaurants -A downtown Austin, TX. The commercial pilot will begin at the end of June.

“We are thrilled to work with Chick-fil-A, an organization that is admired and respected as much for its commitment to the communities it serves as for the innovation and quality of its business,” said Luke Schneider, CEO of Refraction AI. .

Read: Safeway will test delivery robots

Read: Houston, we have a robot: Nuro, the Domino’s team joins forces for autonomous pizza delivery

It’s unclear how many robots Chick-fil-A will receive during this initial launch. But Refraction AI co-founder and CTO Matthew Johnson-Roberson said it would be “an order of 10”, adding that the deal is part of a larger program to test the efficiency, cost-effectiveness and sustainability of robot delivery for fast delivery. service catering.

“Refraction AI was founded as a way to unlock the many benefits of affordable and sustainable delivery using the autonomy technology available today. Expanding the last mile – making it work for our communities, our restaurants, our grocers and our retailers – is a key step in the journey towards a safer, cleaner and brighter future,” Johnson-Roberson said in a statement.

Like many other delivery robots, the company’s flagship REF-1 robot can switch between full autonomy and remote operation when needed. It also has an insulated compartment to maintain food temperature, but the company aims to deliver within 10-12 minutes to ensure orders are received at the correct temperature.

The REF-1 is however unique among delivery robots in several respects. For one thing, it’s bigger and heavier than sidewalk robots from Starship Technologies or Kiwibots, but smaller and lighter than a car-sized robot like Nuro’s.

It’s also light and energy-efficient enough to meet e-bike regulations, yet fast and nimble enough to keep pace with vehicles on the street. This makes them a kind of Goldilocks, capable of operating on both cycle and car tracks without obstructing traffic.

On sidewalks or shoulders, the REF-1 typically travels at around 15 mph. That’s slow enough to give it a stopping distance of around 10 feet and allows Refraction AI to use low-cost sensors like cameras rather than expensive lidar, which is needed for the vehicle to “see ” further away. Robots like Nuro’s, which move at higher speeds, require more expensive technology.

Watch: More vendors offering robotics as a service

But perhaps the most intriguing difference between Refraction AI and other bot delivery players is the platform itself. It’s one of the first companies to deploy a bots-as-a-service (RaaS) model — essentially a bot subscription — for delivery. In a RaaS framework, brands can sign a contract to use a fleet of delivery robots for a set period, typically one to three years, without purchasing the vehicles directly.

The model is one that has seen increasing adoption in the warehouse automation space. In the warehouse, operators take advantage of short-term contracts to buy low-cost automation rather than facing the cash to buy an expensive fleet of robots.

According to the company, Refraction AI is looking to take RaaS out of food delivery. It’s about partnering with retail and grocery partners, a spokesperson told TechCrunch. Parcel delivery is another potential avenue for the platform – Uber has launched same-day parcel delivery in 6,000 US cities using its fleet of contract workers, and Refraction AI could do something similar with its fleet. of commendable delivery robots.

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FREIGHTWAVES’ Top 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes FedEx (#1) and Schneider (#7).