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Kiwibot brings a new semi-autonomous robot food delivery service to south Florida.
The 18-inch tall robots on four wheels zipping across city sidewalks stopped people in their tracks as they whipped out their camera phones.
“It’s operating by itself!” said Brittany Chance, a tourist from Chicago.
The bots’ mission: To deliver restaurant meals cheaply and efficiently, another leap in the way food comes to our doors and our tables.
The semiautonomous vehicles were engineered by Kiwibot, a company started in 2017 to game-change the food delivery landscape. Three years later, the pandemic exacerbated the need for door-to-door food service, prompting rising delivery costs for restaurants and their customers.
“At a glance, we started this company because we understand that delivery as we know it today is broken. If you are an end customer, you’re going to be paying up to 40% of the cost of your food towards your delivery cost,” said David Rodriguez, director of strategy and business operations at Kiwibot. “If you are a merchant…you are going to pay 40% of the cost of whatever you are selling, just for delivery.”
In May, Kiwibot sent a 10-robot fleet to Miami as part of a nationwide pilot program funded by the Knight Foundation. The program is driven to understand how residents and consumers will interact with this type of technology, especially as the trend of robot servers grows around the country.
And though Broward County is of interest to Kiwibot, Miami-Dade County officials jumped on board, agreeing to launch robots around neighborhoods such as Brickell, downtown Miami and several others, in the next couple of weeks.
The robots have a square compartment that holds an insulated bag to keep food at the temperature it was made. For now, the bags have enough space to fit three to four sandwiches, but the company is still working on how to get something as large as a pizza box from point A to point B. It seems the bigger priority now is getting residents used to the idea.
“Our program is completely focused on the residents of Miami-Dade County and the way they interact with this new technology. Whether it’s interacting directly or just sharing the space with the delivery bots,” said Carlos Cruz-Casas, with the county’s Department of Transportation.
“The Kiwibot delivery program aims to start those conversations and give people knowledge and power to tell companies what they want, need and expect,” said Gabe Klein, cofounder of Cityfi, an agency supporting the program.
Remote supervisors use real-time GPS tracking to monitor the robots. Four cameras are placed on the front, back and sides of the vehicle, which the supervisors can view on a computer screen. If crossing the street is necessary, the robot will need a person nearby to ensure there is no harm to cars or pedestrians. The plan is to allow deliveries up to a mile and a half away so robots can make it to their destinations in 30 minutes or less.
“When you think of autonomous vehicles you think of Tesla, but if I don’t have $150,000 I am excluded. But what we are proving is that…you don’t need to be privileged to access this. You only need to be part of a community,” said Rodriguez.
Kiwibot (kiwibot.com) started in Colombia, where the team appeared on the local “Shark Tank” show and won, Rodriguez said.
The company took the money and went to the University of California, Berkeley, where they launched an early version of the robots on campus and in the surrounding areas. In about six months, at least 16 restaurants came on board making nearly 70,000 deliveries.
“By having them in the city and on the campus, it showed us the prowess of this technology and how big the capabilities are,” said Rodriguez, who adds the robots were made to be loveable by knowing how to wink and have heart- or star-shaped eyes. Not having to tip them is also a plus.
Kiwibot now offers their robotic delivery services in other markets such as Los Angeles and Santa Monica by working with the Shopify app to connect businesses that want to employ their robots. The Knight Foundation grant however is making it possible for Miami-Dade County restaurants to sign on for free.
Nino Razicini, the owner of Sushiato in Brickell, says he is interested in applying because the robots may work more efficiently than a driver who is juggling delivery orders from several restaurants. Also the cost-saving aspect is attractive with delivery fees under $3, according to Kiwibot. The concern for the owner though is the risk of people tampering with the 34-pound robots and losing his food.
“As a potential client, I would want to know more about what safety measures are in place to ensure my food delivery will arrive,” Razicini said.
An onlooker curious about the Kiwibot had a similar concern about being on the receiving end of food delivery. “It comes down to people not tampering with it, letting it do its thing,” he said. There is always a member of Kiwibot’s staff within three minutes reaction time of a robot, according to the company.
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“Kiwibot is food safety compliant, and since there is always a remote and in-field team looking for the robot, there is always a response in the event of a mishap,” he said.
Kiwibot controls all the robots. They are also sustainable, running on a single swappable battery that is charged at their offices. Each battery lasts nine hours and takes four hours to charge, they said. Restaurants would have the option to choose which of their deliveries use a Kiwibot.
The team is currently mapping out neighborhoods to know where they can send their robots safely and then they will go business to business to find the right restaurants to join the program. Once the grant is over though, restaurants will have to pay for the service and the team is hoping to expand around South Florida eventually.
“Florida’s weather, cultural richness and fast growth make it a core state for Kiwibot’s development and servicing areas like Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach or Hollywood,” said Rodriguez.
Next level Kiwibots are also in the works.