WATCH: Ann Arbor food delivery robots busier than ever during COVID-19 pandemic

ANN ARBOR – Four Ann Arbor restaurants were using the autonomous REV-1 delivery robots when the program launched in late 2019, and little did they know how in-demand the robots would become once cases of the novel coronavirus reached Michigan.

Developed by University of Michigan startup Refraction AI, the company said its initial eight robots have seen a huge spike in delivery runs since the pandemic began.

What the robots offer is a contactless delivery. Equipped with UV sterilizing lights inside the compartments that store food, customers report feeling safe using the unique delivery method. Refraction AI staff are also wiping down the robots after each delivery to quell any potential spread of the virus.

According to Refraction AI’s custom-designed app, roughly 500 local customers participate in the program. Participating restaurants and stores include:

The three-wheeled, battery-powered robots can be seen coasting around town in bike lanes at about 15 miles per hour.

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The autonomous vehicles can even operate in snowstorms, as demonstrated in this video from December 2019.

But just because demand is rising for Refraction AI’s vehicles doesn’t mean weathering the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been without its challenges for the company of 15 employees.

It has had to shift the way its assembly workers build the robots in its downtown Ann Arbor space so that only one team member works on a vehicle at a time. Some employees are working from home monitoring the robots wirelessly, allowing them to take control of the robots in the field if they run into navigation issues.

“Building robots is an incredibly physical task,” Refraction AI co-founder and CEO Matthew Johnson-Roberson told University of Michigan News. “You’re always making changes, testing, trying something else. Trying to keep that iteration cycle going remotely is a challenge. But it also forces us to really lean into all this technology that we’ve created.

“We’re finding that we don’t necessarily have to lay people off or slow down, we just need to find new ways of doing things. I think we’ve been pretty successful at that, and I hope we’re helping our customers do the same.”

The company is now working with Roush Industries in Livonia to increase production with the hopes of putting 25 new robots on the road this summer.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.