F&B outlets experiment with drones and robots as waiters

  • Staff crunch can be alleviated with flying robot waiters, says Timbre Group
  • Drones supplied by Singaporean startup, R&D boosted by government grant
F&B outlets experiment with drones and robots as waiters
EDWARD Chia was among the early restaurateurs in Singapore to deploy an interactive menu solution using iPads in 2013, allowing patrons at his group of restaurants to do self-service ordering.
 
Speaking to Digital News Asia (DNA) at a media event on Feb 5, the managing director of Timbre Group said, “Without that solution, we wouldn’t have been able to open up more outlets,” noting that hiring staff to take orders was a major challenge.
 
Now, Chia wants to take this to a higher level, with flying robots that can deliver food and drinks as well.
 
His Timbre @ The Substation outlet played host to a trial run, where two autonomous drones shuttled between the bar and two designated ‘end points’ in the medium-sized restaurant, delivering cold cuts and beverages to members of the media. (See the video below.)
 

Dishes that are ready to be served are placed on the drone, and the table number is keyed into a computer system. The drone then takes off and navigates itself to the ‘end point’ that’s nearer to the customer.
 
Upon landing, a service staff would then collect the dish and serve it at the dining table.
 
No other human interaction with the drone is required.
 
For Chia, this saves valuable time and would allow his waiters to interact more with customers, rather than running back and forth delivering orders or collecting empty plates and beer mugs.
 
Another benefit is that these drones can make multiple trips rather than waiting for a full tray of dishes before serving them.
 
Chia said it was “normal human mentality” for typical waiters to carry as many dishes as possible and save on trips, but the downside is that the customer who ordered first may get served last. With the drones, the meals are delivered as soon as they are prepared.
 
These robots won’t replace his team of waiters when they go into commercial operations at the end of 2015. Instead, they will alleviate the staff crunch he currently faces.
 
“It’s hard to find Singaporeans who are willing to do this,” he said, referring to his experience in trying to recruit waiters. “They want a work-life balance, but in the hospitality industry, you need to be able to work late nights and weekends.”
 
As such, the Timbre group is willing to take a chance on these Infinium-Serve robots.  It signed memorandum of understanding with Singapore startup Infinium Robotics on Oct 31 last year, to deploy them initially at one outlet, then gradually at all of Timbre’s five venues.
 
READ ALSO: NEC develops crime-fighting and bus scheduling technologies
 
F&B outlets experiment with drones and robots as waitersAt the recent media event, Infinium Robotics chief executive officer Woon Junyang (pic) revealed that this project with Timbre is expected to come with a “low seven-figure” price tag.
 
Developed over the last three years, work on the robots was partly accelerated through a S$250,000 (US$192,000) grant from the Singapore Government in 2014, to pursue indoor drone R&D in the food and beverage sector.
 
The current prototypes can carry a payload of about 500 to 700 grams, but that will increase to 2kg when they go fully operational. That would easily deliver at least two pints of beer, two glasses of wine, or a large pizza.
 
What may not be so easy is to reduce the loud whirring sound and the strong gust of wind as the drones pass by overhead.
 
“We are still working on the reduction of the noise and also the down-draft – definitely you won’t feel like a helicopter just went by you, but you’ll know that a drone just went by you,” Woon said.
 
When asked about the safety of using such flying objects, he said the robots are equipped with anti-collision, infrared and sonar sensors, to detect obstacles and avoid hitting anyone in a crowded restaurant environment.
 
The Infinium-Serve robots are assembled in Singapore using internationally sourced components. Infinium Robotics is hoping to run more tests and demonstrations to select Timbre customers before the full deployment.

While these drones are a work-in-progress, restaurants in China have already begun rolling out robots on wheels.
 
F&B outlets experiment with drones and robots as waitersDuring the same week as the Timbre media event, CCTV reported that a restaurant in Nanchang, the capital city in the Jiangxi province, had “employed” two robots (pic) that autonomously move around the restaurant to deliver orders.
 
The concept is similar to the drones, except for the pink aprons, the blinking eyes, and the fact that these robots don’t fly.
 
A hostess at the restaurant was quoted in the report as saying, “If a dish is ready, the waitress will put it in the tray held by the robot, which will later say ‘Now to deliver the dish.’ The waitress will push a certain button to tell the robot which table to serve and it will head for that table.”

When the robot arrives at the table, it would request the nearby staff to remove the dish, and wait for its hands to be touched. That is the signal for it to return back to the kitchen.
 
These robots reportedly move at a slow pace in the restaurant due to safety concerns, and thanks to built-in sensors, they will stop automatically if they encounter any obstacles.
 
However, this movement speed can be customised, and they even come with a speech program with around 50 short sentences.
 
The CCTV report cites the restaurant’s manager Tu Dongying, who said that each robot costs RMB 50,000 (US$8,000) each.
 
Productivity gains aside, one can’t deny the novelty factor in seeing these robots and drones in action.
 
Like interactive menus on iPads, not every F&B outlet will buy into such technology just yet. But for Chia and the Timbre Group, “this is definitely the future,” he enthused.

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