Zot Bots stand ready for dispatch across campus by the four UCI eateries currently offering the delivery service.
Zot Bots stand ready for dispatch across campus by the four UCI eateries currently offering the delivery service. Steve Zylius / UCI

Who needs DoorDash when you have Zot Bots?

Last month, these mobile robots began delivering food from select restaurants and coffee shops across campus to the nearly 7,000 students partially sequestered in UCI housing units because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“Day One was very successful,” says Lin Phu Tang, director of Dining Services. “We saw the vast majority of orders coming from Panda Express – and some from Starbucks.”

Affectionately called Zot Bots at UCI, the ottoman-sized, six-wheeled automatons are licensed from Starship Technologies, which provides them to several colleges throughout the country. They’re wholly independent and driven by machine learning, in which massive amounts of data are collected and run through multiple processes to determine the best possible outcome and the most optimal solution.

The Zot Bots were introduced on campus earlier this year, but implementation was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent closures.

Delivery is currently available from Panda Express, Bento Sushi, Med Ed Café and Starbucks, but more vendors are expected to soon join the roster. While eateries receive payment for the items ordered, there is a $1.99 delivery fee that goes directly to Starship.

Students can access the service through a Starship app on their phones from anywhere on campus except University Hills. After placing their orders, they’re able to track the robot’s progress via an interactive map on the app. Upon the Zot Bot’s arrival, they can use the app to open the tamper-proof compartment, retrieve their food and send the robot on its return trip. Each robot is capable of holding up to 20 pounds, equivalent to three average grocery bags.

“I was so excited when [the app map showed] it was close that I ended up walking with it, watching it navigate obstacles and ramps to get to the precise location I sent it,” says satisfied customer Anthony Mansfield, a junior in criminology, law & society. “It surpassed my expectations and provided better service in comparison to popular food delivery applications.”

In light of the pandemic, robots are subject to stringent cleaning protocols. Arriving back at their host site, they’re wiped down – inside and outside – by a restaurant worker, who also sanitizes handles and other commonly touched areas. At the end of their shifts, the Zot Bots return to a home base on campus and are thoroughly disinfected by a Starship employee, then left to dry and “sleep” overnight.

There are 15 robots currently in operation at UCI, with more anticipated.

“We hope to continue to partner with Starship and have them deliver from all our 25-plus eateries,” Tang says. “We’re also hoping that we can personalize the robots – maybe add some university colors or an Anteater – so they can officially be part of the UCI family.”