It seemed inevitable with the era of the autonomous car, ideas like the Kiwibots emerged. Small ostensibly autonomous vehicles that were in charge of food distribution, thus posing an alternative to courier services such as Glovo, Deliveroo or Uber Eats where deliveries are carried out by human messengers through the bike.

Everything seemed fantastic until it has been discovered that these vehicles have little of self-employed: an investigation has discovered that in reality these robots are remotely controlled by operators in Colombia who charge $2 per hour for this work.

Remembering R2-D2

Autonomous transportation systems are one of the great promises of the future: the drones that some companies like Amazon are trying to use for order delivery are a clear example of this, but a small startup created at the University of Berkeley, in California seemed to have a fantastic alternative.

This startup, called Kiwi Campus, launched small robots that looked like small carts with four wheels and a storage compartment at the top for orders. The robots became a sensation in the surroundings of that university, where the activity of the autonomous vehicles began.

They are mainly dedicated to delivering food orders for the students and residents of the area. The Kiwibots became almost another member of the family, thanks to their inevitable analogy with the R2-D2 robot of the Star Wars saga. Although not all of it was good news – some robots were “kidnapped”, others hit – the 40 Kiwi Campus vehicles that got a license to operate in that area seemed to have a promising future.

The messenger revolution that was not so

The people in charge of the Kiwibots have several videos on their website that show how these messenger robots work: theoretically, the magic is provided by a complex artificial vision system that is able to recognize obstacles and detect when they can cross the street or not.

What was not shown to us as indicated in the San Francisco Chronicle is that they are remotely controlled by human operators who use the GPS sensors and cameras of these robots to send orders to the robots every 5 or 10 seconds.

On Kiwi Campus, they have recognized that there is indeed a part of human remote control, but for them, their service is a “parallel autonomy” system. The robots also circulate at a very reduced speed that goes from 1.6 to 2.4 km/h, which makes Kiwi workers have to pick up food orders from restaurants and go to the Kiwibots points of Departure to put the foods in the storage compartments of the robots and then make deliveries.

The model is unique, but it has more secrets than it might seem and much less autonomy than the robots seemed to raise – each of them costs $ 2,500 – initially. The ideal benefits from the low cost of the workforce that controls them: the operators that handle them in Colombia charge $2 per hour, a much lower cost than installing, for example, LIDAR systems – which would be difficult to integrate into these robots.

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