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Delivery robot goes up in flames while out and about in California


An electric-powered robot that delivers meals to folks at the University of California, Berkeley, suddenly caught fire on Friday, December 14. The blaze was quickly extinguished by a passerby, the Daily Californian reported.

Kiwi, the firm that makes the small wheel-based machine, said no one was injured in the incident, which is thought to have been caused by a faulty battery. In response to the fire, the company has pulled its KiwiBots from service until it finishes its investigation.

The first KiwiBots arrived in the city of Berkeley in 2017, allowing anyone with a smartphone to order meals from nearby restaurants. The fleet of 100 machines has already made more than 20,000 deliveries around the university campus and in the nearby area.

The company was quick to post a message online to explain what it knew about the incident so far.

It said a battery inside one of its robots “started smoldering, eventually leading to some smoke and minor flames. A member of the community acted swiftly to extinguish the flames using a nearby fire extinguisher. Within moments of the incident occurring, it had already been contained.”

It added that the Berkeley Fire Department arrived a short while later to secure the scene before dousing the robot with foam to make sure there was no risk of re-ignition.

Following an examination of the wreckage, KiwiBot said the fire occurred after one of its staff members accidentally put a defective battery into the robot instead of a functioning one.

To prevent such an error from happening again, KiwiBot said it has already switched to using custom software designed to “rigorously monitor the state of each battery.”

The incident is a troubling one for a fledgling industry that needs to keep local regulators onside when it comes to the rollout of autonomous robots like these, which are being used increasingly for delivering meals and other items as part of a solution for fast and efficient last-mile deliveries.

Other makers focusing on the technology include Starship Technologies, which has been running various trials in recent years using its similarly designed robot, while Postmates just last week unveiled its own effort that will begin making deliveries to addresses in Los Angeles, with more cities coming in 2019.

One person on Twitter quipped that KiwiBot’s robots were now cooking food en route, though the company was keen to point out that its machine wasn’t carrying an order when it went up in flames.

KiwiBot said that Friday’s incident was the first of its kind, and that so far it has experienced problems with only 0.6 percent of its diminutive delivery robots, which also operate at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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