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BYU researchers test Senegalese food delivery robots on campus

A robotics company in Senegal is collaborating with engineers in Provo to test the feasibility of on-campus food delivery robots.

Look out, DoorDash: a new food delivery system may be making its way to Provo.

BYU mechanical engineering professor Benjamin Terry is conducting a study of food delivery robots developed by CAYTU Robotics, a startup based in Dakar, Senegal. Terry and Sidy Ndao, the CEO of CAYTU, were previously colleagues at the University of Nebraska.

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Photo by Allison Furr

“He went back to Senegal after being at Nebraska for a while and started a university,” Terry said of Ndao. “He invited me to collaborate on this project.”

Food delivery robots have been implemented at other college campuses such as the University of Utah, but CAYTU’s robots are the first to be “crowdsourced,” meaning that the machines can be operated remotely by pilots anywhere in the world.

“The model would be: you're in Senegal, you're trained on driving this robot, and you have an app, like an Uber driver app, and it says, ‘Hey, someone is requesting a delivery. Would you like to do it?’” Terry explained. “And so someone who’s been trained and vetted to navigate the BYU campus can pop onto that robot and drive it.”

Ndao hopes that this system will create new job opportunities. “Africa is the youngest and fastest growing continent in the world,” he said. “However, many face difficulties finding employment. CAYTU’s technology will provide high quality jobs for young Africans.”

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Photo by CAYTU Robotics

CAYTU sent a robot prototype to Provo, where Terry and mechanical engineering undergraduate student Allison Furr are performing a preliminary study of how the robot interacts with humans. In her research, Furr often implements principles from robotics courses at BYU.

“I've been able to apply a lot of things from a lot of different classes on this project,” Furr said. “Like, ‘I think this is the reason that it's breaking. This is a principle from machine design,’ and, ‘Oh, I need to redesign this thing. That's a principle from mechatronics.’”

In collaboration with CAYTU and BYU staff, Furr and Terry are working to overcome challenges for the robots, such as Provo’s winter weather conditions.

“They need to be resistant to moisture and snow and cold and then a bit of ice on the ground. And so they're being designed with that in mind, but they're not being designed to navigate through two feet of snow, for example. So we're counting on grounds crew to help out there,” Terry said.

Terry and his team anticipate that initial testing will be complete by the end of 2023. Although the project is starting small, the researchers have high hopes for the future.

“It's been really cool to just see how quickly we're able to move past problems, and being able to see the expertise of those that we're working with,” Furr said.

Terry added, “If we show that it’s safe, cost effective, and enhances the lives of students, I would love for these to become commonplace. It’s been a pleasure working on this mutually beneficial project with CAYTU, and I hope we can get there.”

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Photo by CAYTU Robotics