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Madison board recommends limiting food delivery robots to UW campus
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Madison board recommends limiting food delivery robots to UW campus

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Starship Robot

Starship Technologies' delivery robots are largely autonomous, although they have human operators to intervene if necessary. A proposed city ordinance would limit any delivery robots to sidewalks on UW-Madison's campus. 

A proposed Madison ordinance would prohibit the use of delivery robots everywhere in the city except for UW-Madison’s campus.

The Transportation Policy and Planning Board unanimously recommended the measure on Monday. If approved by the City Council, it would continue to allow the food delivery robots that UW Housing deployed in November to take dining hall food to students on campus.

Assistant city attorney Amber McReynolds said the purpose of the proposed ordinance is to prevent other companies from bringing new robots to Madison and clogging up city sidewalks. Right now, state law bars delivery robots from streets but not sidewalks, unless a municipality prohibits their use on sidewalks.

McReynolds said UW-Madison has been a “responsible and respectful” user of the robots. They’ve been operating under an informal agreement that limits them to certain sidewalks and crosswalks.

The robots that UW Housing is using were developed by San Francisco-based Starship Technologies. The robots are fully autonomous, but can be taken over remotely by a human at any time. The approximately 30 robots have been traveling from UW dining halls to dorms to fulfill orders that students make via an app on their phones.

“This is helping us deliver our food to our students,” said director of UW Housing Jeff Novak, who spoke in support of the ordinance.

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Novak said UW Housing plans to limit the robots to campus and has no intention of expanding the service to students who live in apartments or other areas of the city. With current use, the robots rarely need to use city-owned property, except for city crosswalks that connect dorms, he said.

Use of those city crosswalks would also be allowed under the ordinance, and the city traffic engineer could make temporary restrictions or changes to certain routes in case of construction or other road closures.

Novak said UW Housing has the ability to immediately turn off particular routes if there is a problem.

McReynolds said the city is not allowed to prohibit other companies from launching delivery robots on the sidewalks where the Starship robots would be permitted.

State law does not allow cities to regulate the robots in any way other than limiting them to certain areas, or prohibiting them altogether. McReynolds said a citywide ban was considered but ultimately rejected.

She said the ordinance is the best way available to the city to prevent “bad actors.”

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