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League of California Cities

Modesto, grocers, and robots partner to get provisions to needy residents

Since the pandemic began, more residents are utilizing e-cart or grocery delivery services. Now, in Modesto residents have another grocery shopping option: robot delivery.
 
When presented with the opportunity to bring cutting-edge technology to their community, Modesto city officials moved fast to make this safe, low-cost, and physically-distant way to get groceries delivered a reality. They conducted extensive research on other cities that use robots for business or education delivery services and created a multi-departmental team to vet potential issues.
 
City staff met multiple times with the grocer and technology companies, including an in-
person tour with a robot, to build out the program framework and make it their own. They also helped develop an
 expedited permitting process to ensure this innovative project could get off the ground quickly.
 
Today, a Modesto Save Mart store, in partnership with the robot delivery company Starship, offers an on-demand robot service to deliver groceries for local residents.
 
“It is always exciting when new and innovative programs come to our city,” said Modesto City Manager Joe Lopez. “But this project also provides an extra level of convenience for residents who may not want, or be able, to make a trip to the grocery store, or are trying to maintain minimal contact with others due to the coronavirus.”

The delivery robots, each of which can carry about three shopping bags, can travel up to four miles roundtrip. Each robot is equipped with an array of cameras and sensors to help it navigate streets, sidewalks, and obstacles through an artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning process.  Users order their groceries on the Starship app and can monitor the robot’s entire journey from store to drop off point.
 
The city says that the limited amount of groceries the robots can carry are perfect for seniors and disabled or low-mobility residents who are at a high risk to developing more severe COVID-19 symptoms, and want to avoid exposure by going to the grocery store for just a few items.
 
With the program in its infancy, the Modesto is continually looking for ways to strengthen the initiative. Staff from the city public works department recently met with the technology company to discuss potential signal infrastructure projects that could improve the robots’ mobility.
 
The innovative program has been well received by residents and reflects a true partnership.  
 
“We appreciate the support from the city of Modesto and our collaboration with Starship as we proudly become the first community in the U.S. to introduce robotic grocery delivery service, providing our valued guests with a new option for a safe and efficient shopping experience,” said Chris McGarry, President and Chief Administrative Officer of The Save Mart Companies.
 
The city of Modesto is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year and since they couldn’t hold many of the in-person activities they had planned city officials said this program presented a unique way to celebrate their milestone anniversary and help residents at the same time. 
 
This story was featured in the CA Cities Advocate newsletter on Oct. 21, 2020.
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