Veronica With Four Eyes

Campus Delivery Robots: College O&M

Shortly before my second year of college, I received a few orientation and mobility lessons for learning how to navigate with low vision and a blindness cane. These lessons were helpful for learning general travel skills, but I noticed they didn’t get into specifics about navigating college campuses or using university resources available for students with vision loss. One lesson that would have been really helpful is how to navigate with the delivery robots on campus, so I’ve created the College O&M series to share my most-used tips and strategies for learning about this topic and others. Here are my tips for blindness cane users on how to use delivery robots on campus, based on my experience with the Starship robots.

About my college’s delivery robots

My college has a partnership with Starship robots to deliver items from various dining locations on campus, both during the day and at night. The robots themselves are about the size of a Labrador retriever and travel autonomously on campus, with staff stepping in to remotely control the robots as needed so they can avoid certain obstacles or navigate in the rain. Other colleges may use delivery robots for delivering mail, bringing items to students in quarantine, or for making other deliveries.

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Helpful accessibility features for delivery robots

Many of the delivery robots I’ve encountered have accessibility features and designs that make them easier to see and use for people with vision loss. Some of these features include:

  • Having a flag at eye level that extends from the top of the robot, so people can see the robot within their line of sight and not trip over it
  • Noisemakers so that someone can hear them coming- this is similar to the noise requirements in electric cars so people with limited sight can still hear a car coming
  • Headlights/lights that allow the robot to be easily spotted in the dark (no flashing lights)
  • The ability to trigger verbal cues from the robot- some robots will play a recorded message identifying themselves if they pass a student, such as “hello, I am a delivery robot!”
  • Some robots will play music when they are parked so students can locate them, or at least avoid tripping over them
  • Labels, numbers, or distinguishable markings on robots so they can easily be identified

Can Starship robots avoid blindness canes?

While I can’t speak for other delivery robot companies, I have spoken directly with the Starship robot team as a student liaison with the assistive technology department, and the representative confirmed that the robots are trained to avoid running into blindness canes and similar mobility aids, and will go around students who are walking with canes- no need for the student to get out of the way. If a student’s cane does hit a robot, it will not cause any damage but may trigger an audio message announcing the robot’s presence.

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Locating the robots for a delivery

Whenever I would order something on campus, I would have the robot navigate to a set location on a map that I had pinned within the app, and set this as my default location. In this case, this was a walkway that was on the back side of my dorm away from traffic, and I would pin the location close to the building itself so that the white robot would contrast against the brick of the building- I’ve never had an issue with multiple robots being in the same location at the same time. The robot will not unlock unless I am standing next to it with my phone and the delivery app open, and I can verify that I have the correct robot by checking the map within the app.

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What to do if a robot is blocking something

Some delivery robots may get trapped by obstacles in their path or by incoming traffic, which can lead to them being in inconvenient locations such as curb cuts or the middle of the sidewalk. If I notice that a robot is in a curb cut when I am trying to cross the street, I take that as a sign it is not safe for me to cross, or I will use my cane to step onto the curb. Sometimes, if the robot notices I am crossing the street, it will move out of the way so that I can use the curb cut safely and feel the tactile pavement with my cane. None of the robots at my college have ever blocked something for more than a minute or two, so that would give me time to walk around an obstacle or wait for something to move.

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Additional tips for using blindness canes with college robots

  • Some places have designated robot areas for each building, such as a dedicated drop-off area
  • The delivery system may be temporarily taken offline if there is a high volume of orders or if there are windy conditions
  • Visual assistance apps such as Be My Eyes or Aira can help users locate delivery robots on their own
  • If the robots pose an accessibility issue, contact Disability Services or the assistive technology department to report it- learn more at Accessibility Issues: Campus O&M and What If I Have To Report Disability Accommodation Violations?

How I use Starship delivery robots on my college campus and avoid running into them with my blindness cane