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In May, following Uber’s acquisition of Postmates, the robotics division of Postmates spun out as an independent company called Serve Robotics. At the time, Serve said it would pursue its vision of deploying fleets of sidewalk delivery robots throughout the country, thousands of which had already served households in Los Angeles prior to the Uber purchase.

Furthering that ambition, Serve today announced that it closed a $13 million expanded seed funding round with participation from strategic investors Uber, Delivery Hero, 7-Eleven’s corporate venture arm, and Wavemaker Partners’ Wavemaker Labs. The new round extends Serve’s previous seed financing and includes participation by existing backers Neo, Western Technology Investment, and Scott Banister, among others.

CEO Ali Kashani says that the proceeds will be put toward growing the company’s headcount and further developing Serve’s technology platform. “This extension of funding will enable us to grow our commercial operations by adding more robots, more partners, and launching more markets in the coming year,” he told VentureBeat via email. “Within the next two to three years, we would like to see our robots in every major U.S. city.”

Contactless deliveries

The pandemic has reinvigorated the segment of companies developing delivery robots small enough to navigate crosswalks, sidewalks, and corporate campuses. Robots not only minimize human-to-human contact, but can fill in at a time when the industry is facing a historic shortage of delivery drivers.

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Early in the pandemic, KiwiBot’s autonomous delivery robots were delivering sanitary supplies, masks, antibacterial gels, and hygiene products in the communities of Berkeley, California and Denver, Colorado. Starship, a rival, recently launched fleets of delivery robots in Fairfax, Virginia following deployments in Washington D.C.; Tempe, Arizona; and Mountain View and Irvine, California. Last July, Amazon expanded trials of its autonomous delivery robot Scout to Atlanta, Georgia and Franklin, Tennessee. And this summer, Grubhub partnered with Yandex’s Self-Driving Group to provide university campus partners, including Ohio State, the ability to deploy Yandex robots on-site for faster deliveries.

Serve Robotics

Other players in the growing delivery robots space include FedEx, Refraction AI, Boxbot, Cartken, Tortoise, and Marble (which was acquired by Caterpillar in June 2020). By 2030, Allied Market Research anticipates that the market will be worth $30.05 billion, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 24.5% over the next nine years.

But roughly-80-employee Serve — which takes its name from the autonomous sidewalk delivery bot that was developed and piloted by Postmates — has the backing of Uber. In November, the ride-hailing company announced that it would partner with Serve to deliver food to UberEats customers in Los Angeles starting in 2022.

“Serve is currently focused on food delivery and recently announced a partnership with UberEats. In 2022, Serve will begin delivering for UberEats and other national chain partners, and will raise its next round of financing to scale up,” Kashani added. “This partnership with Uber will enable Serve to expand robotic delivery to UberEats customers as well, while continuing to grow its operating regions. In the future, Serve plans to expand its model with grocery, pharmacy, cannabis, and parcel delivery.”

Sidewalk-bound

Serve’s meter-high robots sport colorful, LED-laden exteriors that conceal a suite of sensors including RGB cameras, sonar, time-of-flight sensors, GPS, and lidar. The control panel, which sits off to the side, contains a “Help” button and a video chat display as well as a touchscreen panel.

A top hatch conceals a cargo compartment that’s unlocked with a phone app or a passcode. Serve’s robot can carry up to 50 pounds for 25 miles on one charge — enough to make more than dozen deliveries per day, Kashani claims.

Serve notes in a press release that its self-driving rovers have completed tens of thousands of deliveries across the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Legal questions abound about the robots and others like it — only 20 states have passed laws allowing the use of sidewalk robots — but Kashani expects that they’ll ultimately make local delivery more affordable and sustainable.

He’s not the only one. The McKinsey Institute forecasts that driverless rovers like Serve’s will make up 85% of last-mile deliveries by 2025.

“Any customer in our operating area may have their delivery fulfilled by a robot if one is available,” Kashani continued. “Our delivery fleet in LA has operated independently of our engineering process for some time now and has completed contactless deliveries from over 100 merchants to thousands of customers.”

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