Refraction AI now has autonomous robots delivering food and groceries in Ann Arbor

Monday, May 18, 2020 - 3:37pm

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Design by Maggie Wiebe

Driving alongside cars and bikes at 15 mph, Refraction AI’s autonomous robot, REV-1, is making food deliveries for four Ann Arbor restaurants and The Produce Station. The deliveries reach about 500 customers who order their food and groceries through an app after signing up for a pilot program on Refraction AI’s website. 

Refraction AI, based in Ann Arbor, was co-founded by Matthew Johnson-Roberson, associate professor of naval architecture and marine engineering, and Ram Vasudevan, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, with the goal of creating an autonomous vehicle that could be used on a wide scale. The start-up currently has 17 full-time employees and eight autonomous vehicles.

REV-1 uses ultrasound waves to navigate its deliveries and is equipped with 12 cameras to ensure the safety of pedestrians and the robot while it makes its deliveries. Employees are able to work from home but are able to take over the motion of the robot in case of malfunction.

According to Johnson-Roberson, the robot delivery service is just what people need during this pandemic when access to food and groceries without contact is essential.

“People are excited about contactless delivery,” Johnson-Roberson said. “They don’t want to leave their house and this (is) a way they can avoid it.” 

Jeremy Seaver, owner of Tios Mexican Cafe, one of the four restaurants currently using the robot delivery service, finds the delivery service extremely helpful during COVID-19 as it makes deliveries easier for his restaurant.

Seaver was optimistic about the robot delivery service’s success post-pandemic. He said he believes it eradicates the struggle restaurants face in staffing delivery drivers due to the presence of delivery services like Grubhub and Doordash. 

“It’s the most ideal thing possible. It’s completely contactless,” Seaver said. “I think this is a great way to do delivery. I would love to switch to only using the robots.”

In a typical robot-delivered order, customers place orders through Refraction AI’s app and the restaurant is notified. The restaurant then processes the order and receives a notification of the arrival of the robot. After the robot is unlocked by inputting a code, the order is then loaded into hot bags. The robot is locked again and then sent to make the delivery.

According to Johnson-Roberson, Refraction AI’s robot delivery service is more appealing to restaurant owners because it is cost-effective. While services like Grubhub and Doordash charge restaurants about 30-35 percent of the restaurant’s cut, Refraction AI only charges 15 percent. The service is also especially appealing to restaurants during COVID-19 as it reduces the number of people involved in the delivery process.

“One less person means one less risk, one less challenge,” Johnson-Roberson said.

In addition to restaurant delivery, robots also deliver curbside groceries through The Produce Station, a produce market on South State Street. Andrew Gorsuch, vice president of The Produce Station, found out about Refraction AI’s delivery service after their trial run with Korean eatery Miss Kim, and he said he is happy with the delivery service and the feedback he has received from customers of the store. 

Refraction AI’s robot delivery service is also a more environmentally sustainable way of delivering food. According to Johnson-Roberson, a regular human delivery service requires the energy to move the weight of the driver, the fossil fuel-driven car and the food, which is about 3000 pounds. Refraction AI’s electric robots only require energy to move about 105 pounds, making them a more efficient and environmentally-friendly method of ordering food and groceries.

Engineering freshman Amal Bansode, who has currently been purchasing groceries in person at stores like Walmart, believes that robotic delivery is helpful during COVID-19, especially for the immunocompromised population.  

“At this point in time I personally would refrain from using a robotic delivery service as I’m able-bodied and can currently cook for myself,” Bansode said. “However, I believe that this service is extremely helpful as it improves accessibility to food for the at-risk population that is unable to leave their homes to purchase their groceries or pick-up food for themselves.”

Daily Staff Reporter Navya Gupta can be reached at Itznavya@umich.edu