A St. Paul startup is getting its robot-delivery business off the ground using the streets, sidewalks and skyways of the Twin Cities.
The people at Carbon Origins created "Skippy," a robot controlled by virtual reality that picks up and delivers groceries and takeout food.
Carbon Origins has already deployed Skippy for deliveries in St. Paul and is looking to expand deliveries on the University of Minnesota campus and in the North Loop neighborhood in Minneapolis, said co-founder and CEO Amogha Krishna Srirangarajan, who is originally from India but moved to the U.S. to study at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
Carbon Origins started in California, but the founders relocated to Minnesota in July after being selected for the Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator in St. Paul's Osborn 370 building.
Skippy is built on the design of Mars exploration robots.
Srirangarajan and his team of engineers designed a suspension system that allows Skippy to drive up and down stairs and over curbs and other obstacles. The robot also has obstacle and motion detection technology.
"It means your food isn't going to slosh all over the place when he's going over a bumpy road," said Jaimie Hadden, the company's chief brand officer who assembled the first Skippy.
The robot is programmed to say whose order it is picking up at restaurants or grocery stores. Its Skippy voice interaction technology allows it to personalize deliveries and conversations, and even tell jokes.
"It's so important to do robot and human interaction [the right way]," Srirangarajan said. "And what to humans do? We tell jokes to cheer people up."
Locks on the containers block unwanted interference from people, and a heating and cooling system keeps food and groceries at certain temperatures while being delivered, company leaders said. Cameras are mounted on the robot for navigation.
The next version of Skippy will have a metal load-bearing framework allowing it to carry as much as 1,000 pounds. This design would allow the company to explore multiple applications for Skippy, like having it used on farms or with attached sanitation systems in facilities.
Skippy was initially designed to be an autonomous, shared scooter, but after watching the coronavirus pandemic bring the shared scooter industry to a halt, Srirangarajan and his team switched to a more lucrative venture: last-mile delivery.
The on-demand, last-mile delivery business in the U.S. is a $60 billion market, Srirangarajan said. That's divided into $36 billion for grocery delivery and $24 billion for take-out. While still in California, Srirangarajan and Hadden tested a few deliveries by placing a box on an already-made scooter to pick up an order from nearby grocery stores.
"We instantly saw the value in that," Srirangarajan said. "We've stumbled upon something we can pivot into without re-engineering everything."
The team at Carbon Origins integrated Skippy with a virtual reality interface, where neural networks are linked to data captured from real-time human input coming from virtual reality headsets, Srirangarajan said.
"When you're walking from point A to point B, your eyes are constantly moving and you're looking at different things and making decisions on where to put your feet," he said. "We're capturing that and using that."
The VR driving setup is gamified, with drivers leaving virtual bread crumbs for Skippy to follow.
So far, Carbon Origins has assembled 300 VR drivers, called Skipsters. The drivers own their own headsets. Twenty percent of these drivers live outside of the U.S., Hadden said. To be a Skipster, a driver must have a valid driver's license. The average wage for a Skipster is $18 an hour, Srirangarajan said.
Carbon Origins charges a small commission on deliveries. The company's revenue comes from businesses within service zones that subscribe to the delivery service. The company will also generate revenue from selling advertisements on the robot itself, Srirangarajan said.
Srirangarajan and his executives are eyeing possible partnerships with Minnesota-based contract manufacturers to scale the assembly of the robots. The company is also searching for office and warehousing space in the Twin Cities.
Down the road, the company would build a Skippy that can deliver hot pizza or serve as a mobile snack machine that roams hotels and college campuses, Srirangarajan said.