Student startup helps Rutgers Makerspace offer contactless pickup during pandemic

Aersys builds modular click-and-collect systems that allow retailers to offer automated curbside pickup.

Aersys, a startup formed by college students from across New Jersey, on Monday said it has brought automation to Rutgers University by installing a contactless pickup terminal at the Rutgers Makerspace, with plans to integrate drone and rover delivery in the coming years.

The Makerspace is a collaborative workspace for students and faculty. With a dedicated staff and partnerships throughout the university, the Makerspace specializes in woodworking, metal fabrication, textiles and electronics equipment. Students can also order raw materials and 3D printed parts, which will then be fabricated by Makerspace staff.

When the pandemic hit, restrictions prevented students from collecting their orders indoors, and the Makerspace’s hours of operation were drastically reduced. Since students still needed a way to produce parts, Aersys provided the Makerspace with a safe and efficient contactless pickup terminal, named the AerNode, that would allow students to collect their tools, projects and parts from the Makerspace.

This pickup terminal, though designed for retail curbside pickup, was the right solution at the right time for the Makerspace. Students could also rent out specialized equipment at the AerNode, such as soldering irons, without involving staff.

“Aersys was critical in allowing the Makerspace to continue operations to support research and students during the pandemic,” said Daniel Hayden, manager at the Rutgers Makerspace. “The AerNode allowed us to quickly transition to completely touchless pickup of 3D prints by our customers and stay compliant with regulations to ensure safety during COVID-19 shutdowns.”

Automation, which normally requires months of planning, integration and training, would not have been accessible to the Makerspace due to complexity, cost and the need for specialized labor. The AerNode is a paradigm shift in how both small and large organizations look at industrial automation.

The six-month pilot at the Makerspace is now over, but after requests from the staff to keep the AerNode operational indefinitely, the AerNode prototype is being upgraded for increased reliability. The AerNode installed at the Makerspace is the smallest version possible, comprising three modules. These modules combine like Lego blocks, letting retailers build custom solutions without the need for engineers, developers and specialists. The Makerspace AerNode can currently hold up to 30 orders of varying sizes and the time to pick up a package is under 20 seconds.

The AerNode is designed for more than contactless pickup, however.

“Many people ask us why we’re using an advanced robot instead of a smart locker,” said Mandev Singh, head of engineering at Aersys. “It really has to do with what we’re going to do next. We are already preparing to deliver orders directly to students and academic labs via autonomous sidewalk robots. We’re also experimenting with drone delivery. A smart locker would not be able to transfer packages to autonomous vehicles.”