Dancing with robots on a beautiful spring eve

An usher blocks a delivery robot during an outdoor evening dance concert at James Madison University in Virginia. The robots are often seen delivering food and drinks to students in nearby dorms, crossing through the walkway space at the edge of a grassy quad. (unknown)


One idyllic spring evening on the picturesque quad of James Madison University in Virginia, a modern dance concert graced passersby and students lounging on the grass, many glad to be outside and away from the confines of the pandemic.

As expected, 21 dancers wearing masks used part of the grassy space and nearby stairways, following the steps of their practiced choreography and recorded music, touching on serious themes of pandemic and racism. “Fig Leaves and Open Letters” was the name given the project by the Virginia Repertory Dance Company housed in the School of Theatre and Dance at JMU.

Less expected: how would several short, 60-pound autonomous wheeled delivery robots handle the unusual event taking place in the midst of their well-traveled robot pathways?

During the 45-minute dance program, as many as 10 of the Starship Technologies robots tried to make their separate ways across the performance space to deliver food or drinks to customers in nearby dorms and offices.

Each time a robot approached, ushers, some in black attire, would spot them arriving slowly, at up to 4 mph, and then run to block their paths.

One usher described stepping in front of one approaching robot. It backed away and moved ahead, then backed away again when the usher stood ground.  There, then in this pandemic spring of 2021, undertook a short impromptu dance between usher and robot:  usher moves to block; robot moves to pass by usher; usher moves to block again.

Eventually, the robot gave up and turned around to find another route to make its delivery, as did all the other robots confronted by ushers that evening.

Reporter to usher: “Did you ever encounter a robot interrupting a performance you ushered before?”

Usher: “Never. Never.”

Reporter: “Was it easy to block the robot?”

Usher: “It was easier to block the robots than the bicyclists crossing the area.”

According to all accounts, the robots did what they were programmed to do. The dancers danced. The music played. The gathered audience applauded, rising from lounging on the lawn to offer a standing ovation.  The event was widely considered a rousing success.

Starship Technologies and 1 million miles of deliveries

Starship apparently is familiar with robots crossing public spaces and encountering crowds like the one at JMU’s dance concert.

Based in San Francisco with R&D in Estonia, Starship reported in January that it reached 1 million miles of deliveries after five years. Its robots are deployed in 100 cities and 20 countries, and the company estimates its robots have interacted with 6 million people.  Many are spotted regularly in Northern Virginia suburbs as well as Washington D.C., a two-hour drive from JMU.

 Customers can order food, drinks, ordinary health items and more via an app. The robots can even go up curbs, mostly traveling on sidewalks, but “anywhere a pedestrian can walk,” according to its website FAQ.

The robot uses a mix of computer vision, GPS and proprietary mapping techniques to know its location down the inch, according to Starship. Its obstacle detection uses a “situational awareness bubble” around it. It relies on up to 12 cameras, ultrasonic sensors, radar, neural networks and other technology to detect obstacles, animals, pedestrians, cyclists, other delivery robots. And now, obviously, ushers.

In one portion of its FAQ, Starship explains that the robots are programmed to avoid pedestrians and stop if an object appears in front of it, as well as slow down if an object is alongside it. “If a robot comes to a stop, for any reason, a remote operator is pinged and can immediately take control of the device and navigate it, using low-res cameras,” the Starship FAQ says.

Starship couldn’t be reached immediately to explain if the JMU dance concert was an especially unusual encounter or if any remote operators took control of the robots when facing off with ushers.

For JMU, the robots crossing into the quad during the dance concert were a non-event and probably unnoticed by audience or dancers, organizers said.  The crowd that witnessed the concert included an students and others already playing or seated on the grassy area and others who arrived to see the performance.

jmu outdoor dance
Fig Leaves and Open Letters at JMU   credit: Richard Finkelstein

“Fig Leaves and Open Letters” choreography was created by the dance company members and Virginia Repertory Directors Ryan Corriston and Matt Pardo, professors at JMU. Choreography and sound design by Christian Warner; costume design by Pamela Johnson.

Company members: Ashton Clevenger, Hailey Clevenger, Chloe Conway, Raeanna Grey, Ana Hart, Matt Haskett, Jana Kalivoda, Haley Labby, Lindsey McKim, Gregory Pergerson, Molly Philpott, Madison Riggs, Isabel Robles, Ammara Shafqat, Kinsley Stevenson and Caitlin Winkler.

Guest Performers: Darian Desrocher, Jason Fitts, Illiana Harris, Jordan Hundley and Abby Kelley.

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