Everybody who sees the new delivery driver for Southside Flying Pizza in Austin wants to stop and meet her. She’s short, a little clumsy, and right now, she needs help from a buddy when making her rounds, to ensure she doesn’t accidentally miss a stop sign or neglect to notice a speeding pickup truck coming around a blind curve in the city’s Travis Heights neighborhood, where she lives. Her name, indicated clearly on a sticker on her back, is 17, and she is one of a handful of REV-1 delivery robots, created by autonomous robotics company Refraction AI, out hustling pizzas to customers near Austin’s famous South Congress strip.
The way Refraction’s delivery bots work is straightforward: a customer goes to a restaurant’s website and places a delivery order, the same way they would if a human were going to be bringing them their food. (Southside Flying Pizza was the initial restaurant partner upon Refraction’s Austin launch in mid-June, with more coming in the next few weeks.) The robot, which is essentially a gray plastic trunk that stands a little taller than waist level and is built on a frame like that of a recumbent bicycle, then gets sent off from the “nest” where it awaits its assignment—currently, the only nest is at Refraction’s office a few blocks off South Congress—and on to the restaurant. When it arrives, an employee loads the pizza into the cargo bin, and then the little robot courier begins its appointed round, ambling peppily on the right-hand side of the road or in the bike lane, mostly on side streets, to bring the pizza to its hungry recipient. Because this is all early going for Refraction’s efforts in Austin.
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All deliveries are currently accompanied by a Robot Safety Operator, a human who stays in constant communication with a programmer at the company’s headquarters as he or she bodyguards the robot, training the AI to identify speed bumps on the road and pausing at intersections to help spot traffic that the still-learning software will better understand in the future. For 17’s delivery, the bodyguard is Riley, a friendly native Austinite on an electric scooter. Besides guiding 17 on its path until it eventually outgrows the need for his services, his primary other responsibility seems to be saying “it’s a delivery robot” to all of the many pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists who stop in their tracks to ask “what is that?” when they encounter the REV-1.