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Coming in hot: Food delivery robot bursts into flames

Coming in hot: Food delivery robot bursts into flames
A Kiwibot food delivery robot caught fire on the UC Berkeley campus Friday. (Alexandra Stassinopoulos / Daily Californian)

Food delivery robots have been rolling around UC Berkeley and the surrounding area for nearly two years. Then one spontaneously burst into flames.

One of Kiwi Campus’ Kiwibot robots was idling Friday when one of its batteries began to smolder, then spouted smoke and fire, according to a company blog post.

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Someone nearby used a fire extinguisher to put out the flames. Kiwi said the incident was “contained” within moments. The Berkeley Fire Department arrived shortly afterward and sprayed foam on the robot to prevent any potential reignition, the company said.

Kiwi suspended service.

The company said in its blog post that the root cause of the fire was “human error”: A defective battery was installed. The company said that to prevent future fires, it has installed “custom software” that will “rigorously monitor” the state of each battery in its robots.

In the last throes of finals week, UC Berkeley students expressed grief about the robot’s demise, calling it a “hero” and a “legend,” the Daily Cal campus newspaper reported.

Kiwi’s autonomous, knee-high Kiwibot looks like a compact ice chest on wheels. The company, part of UC Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator, provides food delivery service in the Berkeley area.

Its business model relies on a mix of robots and humans. Kiwi uses a cylindrical robot called a RestaurantBot to ferry food from restaurants’ kitchens to the sidewalk, where a rider pedaling one of the company’s semi-autonomous cargo tricycles can pick it up. The rider then opens the tricycle’s storage compartment, which contains Kiwibots, and places the food inside the robot. As shown in a company video, the tricycle can then propel itself toward the food’s destination. About 400 yards from the customer, the Kiwibot is deployed to cover the last bit of ground.

The company said Saturday that it had pulled all of its robots from operations while investigating the cause of the fire. Kiwi did not respond Monday to questions about whether delivery service had resumed or how many robots it operated. The Daily Cal reported that more than 100 robots deliver food throughout the campus and city. It was unclear how many of those robots are Kiwibots.

Founded in 2016, Kiwi is based in Berkeley. It has raised as much as $2 million in five rounds of funding, according to Crunchbase, a platform that tracks fundraising.

There have been several battery fires in consumer-facing products over the last few years. In 2016, U.S. regulators recalled about 1 million Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones because the phone’s lithium-ion battery could overheat and catch fire.

More recently, Lime pulled about 2,000 of its electric rental scooters from streets in Los Angeles, Lake Tahoe and San Diego because a battery defect in one model could cause the vehicles to burst into flames.

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