Michigan company to test food-delivery robots in Ann Arbor

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — A Michigan company that makes self-driving food delivery vehicles will begin testing them out in Ann Arbor in January with patrons from four restaurants.

Ann Arbor-based Refraction AI makes the REV, an autonomous robot that’s five feet (1.5 meters) tall, with wheels and a fuselage that can hold up to delivery bags. The company will begin using its REVs on Jan. 3 to make meal deliveries from four restaurants to a test group of 300 customers in downtown Ann Arbor.

Refraction AI hopes that its electric, 100-pound (45 kilogram) REV can make food deliveries for half the cost of existing delivery services like Grubhub, EatStreet and DoorDash, the Detroit News reported.

If successful, the robots could open the door to metropolitan areas being service by self-driving vehicles that hustle meals, groceries and documents to customers.

The REV is armed with two lidar laser sensors as well as a mix of cameras, radar and ultrasound sensors that allow it to negotiate streets in any climate.

“Our biggest focus is dense, urban areas. At (these) speeds, it’s a safe proposition,” said Refraction AI CEO Matthew Johnson-Roberson.

Refraction plans to expand in 2020 to areas including Boston as well as Madison, Wisconsin.

Delivery orders are made via phone app. The REVs are then dispatched from their “nest” at Refraction headquarters for deliveries within a 2-mile radius from the four participating restaurants: Miss Kim, Belly Deli, Tios Mexican Cafe and Chow Asian Street Food.

“The robots are cute, but as business owners, their affordability offers us the chance to hire more employees devoted to delivery services because the cheap business model allows us more money to pay our employees,” said Ji Hye Kim, the proprietor of Ann Arbor’s Miss Kim restaurant.