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Ding dong merrily on high. In Berkeley, the bots are singeing: Self-driving college cooler droid goes up in flames

Kiwibot snack shuttle snuffed by thermal runaway

A Kiwibot delivery robot unexpectedly self-immolated last week at the University of California, Berkeley, due a defective battery, the company said over the weekend, attributing the incident to human error.

Like competing cargo-bots from Postmates and Starship Technologies, Kiwibots are intended to carry deliveries autonomously to folks in urban areas. Kiwibots, however, focus on the last few hundred metres of a delivery. Between their launch in March 2017, the bots have delivered well over 10,000 food orders in a limited part of the US city, at a cost of $3.80 per order, according to UC Berkeley News.

On Friday, things went awry.

"On the 14th of December this year, one of the batteries for our robot that was idling started smouldering, eventually leading to some smoke and minor flames," the upstart said in a statement. "A member of the community acted swiftly to extinguish the flames using a nearby fire extinguisher."

By "minor flames," the biz means "fully engulfed in flames," as this tongue-in-cheek Twitter post depicts:

The Berkeley Fire Department arrived after the fire was put out and sprayed the burnt bot with foam to prevent re-ignition, a relatively common occurrence for battery fires.

After the fatal Tesla crash on May 8 in Florida this year, the battery fire that followed re-ignited twice, according to Reuters. Thermal runaways that lead to combustion have also plagued mobile phones, notably Samsung's Galaxy Note 7. In 2006, Sony recalled millions of lithium-ion batteries for their tendency to set Dell notebooks afire.

The Kiwibot fire was less spectacular than the lithium-ion battery fire that consumed NASA's RoboSimian droid in 2016, but it still lit up more than a few posts on social media.

No injuries were reported, though, Kiwibots temporarily halted its fleet of robots while it investigated, with outstanding orders fulfilled by delivery people. The maker said it is implementing a different procedure for managing battery swaps to prevent similar incidents.

"We learned that the root cause was human error when replacing the batteries, where a defective battery was put in place of a functioning one," the biz explained, adding that it has added battery monitoring software to better assess the state of its machines. ®

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