This Autonomous Robot Might Soon Make Food Deliveries in Airports

Ottobot can maneuver through crowded places without GPS

4 min read
person grabbing a soda bottle out of a robot with wheels

The Ottobot can adjust its position and height so that anyone—including children, the elderly, and people with disabilities—can reach its payload. The robot’s compartments are large enough to allow it to make multiple deliveries in a single run.


Sometime next year, an autonomous robot might deliver food from an airport restaurant to your gate.

The idea for Ottobot, a delivery robot, came out of a desire to help restaurants meet the increased demand for takeout orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ottobot can find its way around indoor spaces where GPS can’t penetrate.

Founded 2020

Headquarters Santa Monica, Calif.

Founders Ritukar Vijay, Pradyot Korupolu, Ashish Gupta and Hardik Sharma

Ottobot is the brainchild of Ritukar Vijay, Ashish Gupta, Hardik Sharma, and Pradyot Korupolu. The four founded Ottonomy in 2020 in Santa Monica, Calif. The startup now has 40 employees in the United States and India.

Ottonomy, which has raised more than US $4.5 million in funding, received a Sustainability Product of the Year Award last year from the Business Intelligence Group.

Today Ottobot is being piloted not only by restaurants but also grocery stores, postal services, and airports.

Vijay and his colleagues say they focused on three qualities: full autonomy, ease of maneuverability, and accessibility.

“The robot is not replacing any staff members; it’s aiding them in their duties,” Vijay says. “It’s rewarding seeing staff members at our pilot locations so happy about having the robot helping them do their tasks. It’s also very rewarding seeing people take their delivery order from the Ottobot.”

Focusing on autonomous technology

For 15 years Vijay, an IEEE senior member, worked on autonomous robots and vehicles at companies including HCL Technologies, Tata Consultancy Services, and THRSL. In 2019 he joined Aptiv, an automotive technology supplier headquartered in Dublin. There he worked on BMW’s urban mobility project, which is developing autonomous transportation and traffic-control systems.

During Vijay’s time there, he noticed that Aptiv and its competitors were focusing more on developing electric cars rather than autonomous ones. He figured it was going to take a long time for autonomous cars to become mainstream, so he began to look for niche applications. He hit upon restaurants and other businesses that were struggling to keep up with deliveries.

Ottobot reduces delivery costs by up to 70 percent, Vijay says, and it can reduce carbon emissions for small-distance deliveries almost 40 percent.

OttonomyUsing wheelchair technology, the Ottobot can maneuver over curbs and other obstacles. robot on wheel strolling down a city sidewalk

Ottobot as an airport assistant

Within the first few months of the startup’s launch, Vijay and the Ottonomy team began working with Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport. The facility wanted to give passengers the option of having food from the airport’s restaurants and convenience stores delivered to their gate, but it couldn’t find an autonomous robot that could navigate the crowded facility without GPS access, Vijay says.

To substitute for GPS, the robot used 3-D lidars, cameras, and ultrasonic sensors. The lidars provide geometric information about the environment. The cameras collect semantic and depth data, and the short-range ultrasonic sensors ensure that the Ottobot detects poles and other obstructions. The Ottonomy team wrote its own software to enable the robot to create high-information maps—a 3D digital twin of the facility.

Vijay says there’s a safety mechanism in place that lets a staff member “take over the controls if the robot can’t decide how to maneuver on its own, such as through a crowd.” The safety mechanism also notifies an Ottonomy engineer if the robot’s battery runs low on power, Vijay says.

“Imagine passengers are boarding their plane at a gate,” he says. “Those areas get very crowded. During the robot’s development process, one of our engineers joked around, saying that the only way to navigate a crowd of this size was to move sideways. We laughed at it then, but three weeks later we started developing a way for the robot to walk sideways.”

The team took its inspiration from electric-powered wheelchairs. All four of the Ottobot’s wheels are powered and can steer simultaneously—which allows it to move laterally, swerve, and take zero-radius turns.

The wheelchair technology also allows the Ottobot to maneuver outside an airport setting. The wheels can carry the robot over sidewalk curbs and other obstacles.

“It’s rewarding seeing staff members at our pilot locations so happy about having the robot helping them do their tasks.”

Ottobot is 1.5 meters tall—enough to make it visible. It can adjust its position and height so that its cargo can be reached by children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, Vijay says.

The robot’s compartments can hold products of different sizes, and they are large enough to allow it to make multiple deliveries in a single run.

To place orders, customers scan a QR code at the entrance of a business or at their gate to access Crave, a food ordering and delivery mobile app. After placing their order, customers provide their location. In an airport, the location would be the gate number. The customers then are sent a QR code that matches them to their order.

A store or restaurant employee loads the ordered items into Ottobot. The robot’s location and estimated arrival time is updated continuously on the app.

Delivery time and pricing varies by location, but on average retail orders can be delivered in as quickly as 10 minutes, while the delivery time for restaurant orders generally ranges from 20 to 25 minutes, Vijay says.

Once the robot reaches its final destination, it sends an alert to the customer’s phone. The Ottobot then scans the person’s QR code, which unlocks the compartment.

Pilot programs are being run with Rome Airport and Posten, a Norwegian postal and logistics group.

Ottonomy says it expects Ottobot to be used at airports, college campuses, restaurants, and retailers next year in Europe and North America.

Why IEEE membership is vital

Being an IEEE member has given Vijay the opportunity to interact with other practicing engineers, he says. He attends conferences frequently and participates in online events.

“When my team and I were facing difficulties during the development of the Ottonomy robot,” he says, “I was able to reach out to the IEEE members I’m connected with for help.”

Access to IEEE publications such as IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine, IEEE Robotics and Automations Letters, and IEEE Transactions on Automation Science and Engineering has been vital to his success, he says. His team referred to the journals throughout the Ottobot’s development and cited them in their technical papers and when completing their patent applications.

“Being an IEEE member, for me, is a no-brainer,” Vijay says.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.