Robot food delivery in high demand

A start-up company that delivers food to residents of Ann Arbor has seen a sharp rise in business in recent weeks, as the impact of COVID-19 has meant consumers have been trying to find a safe way to get food to their homes.

At the end of last year, Refraction AI, a company founded by a pair of University of Michigan professors, began using robotic devices known as REVs, or Refraction Electric Vehicles, to deliver food from four restaurants in Ann Arbor to a small number of customers.

“At Refraction AI, we build and deploy lightweight, low-cost, weather-proof robots to deliver food and other goods,” said Matthew Johnson-Roberson, CEO and co-founder of the company. “What sets us apart is the fact that our robots can operate safely in the bike lane and on the roadway.”

Johnson-Roberson founded the company with fellow University of Michigan robotics professor Ram Vasudevan. The duo had worked together on the concept of autonomous vehicles for over a decade before starting Refraction AI.

The company’s pilot program began in December, with four restaurants using the service: Belly Deli, Chow Asian Street Food, Miss Kim and Tios Mexican Cafe. It allowed for customers to place a lunch order for delivery anywhere within a 2 1/2 mile radius of the restaurants.

“It has been well-received by both customers and restaurants, even before the shutdown, as it’s an affordable and convenient solution on both ends — restaurants and customers pay significantly less than other car-based delivery services, and the convenience factor is key,” Johnson-Roberson said.

Since the state was shut down in March, Refraction AI has seen its orders increase by a factor of four in a very short amount of time, with hundreds of customers being served and more restaurants seeking to join the program.

This increased workload is proving taxing for the fleet of five REVs that Refraction AI has produced, leaving them working to create new vehicles to meet demand. Each REV costs roughly $5,000 to produce.

“We are working quickly to build more robots to meet the rising demand. We hope to have 25 robots running in Ann Arbor within the next two months,” Johnson-Roberson said.

The REVs, which stand about four feet tall and can operate in either car or bike lanes, can hold up to 16 cubic feet of cargo at a time. 

“Refraction is prioritizing partnering with local restaurants in Ann Arbor to support the community. With low delivery costs for the restaurants, the company hopes to help keep restaurants afloat amid the pandemic,” Johnson-Roberson explained.

For more information on REVs, visit the Refraction AI website.

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