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Sidewalk Robots Find Foothold on College Campuses

Starship’s 50 robots at James Madison University showcase the potential of automated delivery bots.

James Madison University has about 50 Starship Technologies autonomous robots rolling across campus.

James Madison University has about 50 Starship Technologies autonomous robots rolling across campus.

Photographer: Greg Kahn for Bloomberg Businessweek

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Robot 509 from Starship Technologies is both patient and skittish. The autonomous machine, which resembles a Yeti cooler crossed with a Waymo minivan, moves around like a mammal near the bottom of the food chain. It freezes up in crowds and, even when utterly alone, scoots forward in halting spurts, seemingly suspicious of fallen leaves.

A few days after Thanksgiving, Robot 509 ferries some cargo across the campus of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. It stops on a deserted road, waiting for about a minute before finally scooting across, then trundles over a stretch of pavement and some railroad track before coming to a full stop.