When schools in Minnesota closed due to coronavirus and shifted to e-learning, it looked like it would be the end of the season for the robotics team at Northeast Range School in Babbitt. High school junior Oskar Koivisto said the team was disappointed.
“We had so many robotics projects that we still wanted to do while we were still in school, but we couldn’t really do them,” he said. But then — “We had a little discussion, and we said, ‘what’s a project that we can (quickly) do that would be good for our robotics team as well as benefit our community?’ ”
Their decision: create a grocery robot.
The team modified a robot used in parades that functioned as a T-shirt cannon. Now its flat top is fitted with two plastic totes that can hold groceries. Guided by remote control, the robot delivers groceries from Zup’s in Babbitt to shoppers waiting in their cars, in order to preserve social distancing.
“We only have one grocery store in town, and that’s the main thing people go to,” said junior Phoebe Morgan, who serves as the wiring and safety captain for the team. She said they were mindful of the elderly people in town who were at highest risk for the virus.
“We’re really looking to get the message out there that social distancing is important, and possibly help people that are too afraid to go to the grocery store. If they have that option, it might ease their mind a bit,” she said.
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The first test run was Wednesday. Koivisto and fellow student Zoey Cameron fulfilled orders, wearing masks and rubber gloves, and taking care to wipe down the totes between deliveries.
Operating a grocery robot involves more than simply retooling a robot and maneuvering it across a parking lot. Zup’s grocery store in Babbitt does not have an online order system, so the students created a form to take both online and phone orders. As for payment, customers can either call the store to give their credit card number, or the robot can ferry the card back and forth. Grocery delivery by robot is slower than by human, Koivisto said — but it’s safer.
Robotics is a popular activity at Northeast Range, with 18 members in a consolidated school of fewer than 100 students. The team plans to continue the grocery robot’s delivery service each Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., hopefully with more students assisting in grocery shopping. Morgan, who has been working to spread the word about the service, said they hope to expand to the Zup’s stores in Tower and Ely, where other robotics team members live.
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