Science & Technology

Robot delivery cars in Miami offer glimpse of future urban retail landscape

By Ana Mengotti

Miami, Apr 9 (EFE).- Residents of Miami’s downtown Brickell neighborhood are gradually growing accustomed to a new sight on public streets: small, self-driving six-wheeled vehicles that are this South Florida city’s first food-delivery robots.

This unique service is being provided through a partnership between self-driving and robotics startup Cartken and REEF Technology, a Miami-based unicorn (privately held startup valued at more than $1 billion) that was founded in 2014 and currently is the largest operator of mobility, logistics hubs and neighborhood kitchens in the United States.

The initiative is in keeping with REEF’s mission to transform underutilized urban spaces into neighborhood hubs and thereby better respond to the needs of local consumers, Alex Melendez, a site general manager at REEF, said in an interview with Efe at a parking lot in Brickell.

“It’s about creating an ecosystem to be closer to customers and being able to deliver them products that other types of systems normally couldn’t deliver,” he said.

Several food trucks, or ghost kitchens, situated in one section of the parking lot are used to prepare dishes from 11 well-known restaurant brands that have existing contracts with REEF.

When a customer in the Brickell area orders a meal from a REEF partner brand through platforms like UberEats, Postmates, DoorDash or GrubHub, the order is prepared there and delivered to the recipient’s address via an electric-powered robot.

Built by Cartken, those robots only deliver within a half-mile (roughly 800-meter) radius in downtown Miami, said the executive, who is of Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian descent.

This modality allows deliveries to arrive in a half hour or less and lowers the cost of REEF’s operations by 47 percent, Melendez, a former employee of, Inc., added.

Matt Lindenberger, REEF’s chief technology officer, said in a March 30 press release on the robot rollout that its benefits include reducing bottlenecks during peak dining hours and lowering carbon emissions.

The artificial intelligence-powered robots’ “sophisticated mix of sensors and cameras help them navigate through busy sidewalks and street crosswalks, as well as over steps and curbs,” the press release said.

For security reasons, the compartment of these tub-shaped apparatuses is locked and can only be opened with the numerical code provided to the order recipient.

Once they have fulfilled their mission, these robots featuring zero-emission, contactless, last-mile automation technology return to their neighborhood hub.

Melendez acknowledged that the Covid-19 pandemic has given a boost to the project to a certain degree.

“No one touches your food, only the person who prepares it with gloves and all the safety measures. Inside the robot, the food is kept in sealed bags,” he added.

For now, it may be surprising for pedestrians to see robots reminiscent of the Star Wars character R2-D2 rolling down the street and stopping at traffic lights.

But REEF plans to roll out more Cartken robots in additional Miami locations and neighborhoods within the next few weeks, and then later extend the initiative to neighboring Broward County (South Florida); New York City; Austin, Texas; Los Angeles; and eventually to foreign countries.

If those plans come to fruition, these delivery robots figure to become a normal part of the urban neighborhood retail landscape. EFE


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