TECHNOLOGY

Age of the restauroids: Will robots become a reality in restaurants?

Pepper the robot is on trial in Pizza Hut in Japan

They’ve been predicted for decades, but are we about to see robots finally become a reality in the dining room and kitchen?

While it’s a bit premature to start fearing for your job just yet, robots are on the rise in the restaurant sector. The US’ influential National Restaurant Association show in Chicago featured three robots this year: a sushi bot that can make 3,600 pieces of nigiri per hour; a vending-machine-style robot that makes bespoke salads and a robotic fry cook.

More impressively, over in Japan, Pizza Hut is trialling a robotic waiter called Pepper. If the promotional video is to be believed, the 3ft humanoid is extremely sophisticated, verbally interacting with diners in much the same way as a human being. It can even respond to questions about dietary requirements, giving info on calorie counts and fat content. It also features a facial recognition system designed to monitor its customers’ emotions.

Meanwhile a robotics company in San Francisco is even planning a ‘smart’ restaurant concept based around its burger making ‘robot’. Just insert tomatoes, pickles, onions, lettuce, buns and meat and out pops a fully-cooked, ready-to-eat hamburger. According to Momentum Machines, the technology will provide “the means for the next generation of restaurant design and operation”.

But generally speaking robots – that are designed to do a very specific and repetitive task – aren’t well-suited to the restaurant environment.

Plug-and-play

Chefs need to be able to perform a huge number of often fiddly jobs while front-of-house staff need to react to very singular situations. As such, roboticists will need to make the sort of androids portrayed in films such as Blade Runner before operators can start thinking about replacing their commis chefs and waiters with a plug-and-play model that will work 24/7 without complaint. 

“We bring a lot of new automated technology in from the US and we have a long-standing joke with some of our customers about our upcoming range of robotic chefs,” says Ashley Sheppard, sales and marketing director at Call Systems Technology, which supplies a range of restaurant-related technology products including a kitchen automation system called ConnectSmart Kitchen. “I don’t think we’re ever going to see kitchens staffed by robots and, personally, I wouldn’t like to see a dining room run by robots. It would be soulless.”

Sheppard believes that automation technology such as his own ConnectSmart Kitchen system and its front of house counterpart DineTime will, however, revolutionise the way restaurants are
run. “It’s evolving all the time. A very exciting feature we’ll be rolling out over the next six months is a large enterprise portal that can give the customer a huge amount of information about their order. Much like tracking a parcel, they will be able to find out exactly what stage their order is at.”

Home-delivery

Robotic chefs might be a century or so away, but robots and drones are already shaking up the sector’s booming home-delivery market. Just Eat recently partnered with Starship Technologies to trial a delivery service in select areas of central London that sees food orders fulfilled by autonomous wheeled drones. Meals are placed inside the insulated compartments and customers are given a secure code to open them when the machine arrives at their door.

The six-wheeled ‘ground drones’ travel along the pavement and are almost completely self-driving. Trundling along at just 4mph, Just Eat’s drones have a limited range, but other developing technologies will be able to move food and drink around faster and over much greater distances. Google expects its Self-Driving Car to be ready to purchase by 2020. Its driverless technology has only been approved for use on public roads in a handful of US states and the company will likely have tough job persuading the UK government the technology is safe. If it can, though, it’s likely that companies such as Deliveroo will eventually no longer need to rely on human delivery drivers.

Flypay’s Tom Weaver – an expert in new technology – says that the potential of unmanned vehicles to disrupt the food delivery space should not be underestimated. “It does seem far-fetched at the moment, but then so did a lot of technologies we rely on all the time when they first emerged. The amount of money being poured into it at the moment is pretty extravagant, and the number of potential applications is huge,” he says.

Amazon has invested heavily in getting its Prime Air drones programme off the ground and is currently lobbying both the US and UK governments to relax rules on commercial drones. Current UK regulations would make a widespread rollout impossible because drones are required to be within the eye-line of pilots and not fly without a licence over populated areas. Amazon hopes new regulations can be drawn up to allow their commercial use. Its test fleet can deliver packages up to around 2kg in weight with a range of approximately 10 miles.

While food delivery isn’t front of mind for the e-commerce company at this point – the technology is more geared towards small, high-value packages – drones also have the potential to revolutionise food delivery.

Hotel humanoids

Hotels are already using robots for some front-of-house tasks. Last year Edwardian Hotels London fired up its first ‘artificially intelligent’ employee – a chatbot called Edward. Guests can text the ‘virtual host’ to order room service, request information about local bars and restaurants, and even send complaints. Edward has been designed to act as a ‘self-service’ concierge for guests, but can call for human assistance when needed. The bot is available at 12 Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotels, including Heathrow and the Vanderbilt in South Kensington, London.

“It is imperative that we evolve our guest experiences to meet growing consumer demand for more digital interactions. Edward is a fun and personalised way for our guests to enhance their experience and engage with,” says Michael Mrini, director of information technology at Edwardian Hotels London.

Designed by Aspect software, Edward is able to respond to natural speech patterns rather than requiring guests to input specific commands. “Texting and messaging will soon become the simple and central entry point for the entire customer service ecosystem. It’s much more convenient for us to order room service, or get recommendations from Edward on the local tourist hotspots with a text,” says Joe Gagnon, chief customer strategy officer at Aspect.

Zonal Retail Data Systems’ sales and marketing director Clive Consterdine maintains that customers still value the human touch. 

“Our research carried out with CGA Peach confirms this, so I don’t think we’ll see robots serving customers in UK restaurants anytime soon,” he says. 

Yet Zonal has recently introduced a robotic arm into its R&D and product testing processes. During busy times the company used to hire temporary workers to press buttons on the key pads of its integrated chip and PIN devices.

This was not only expensive, but was also subject to human error. In January this year, it introduced a robotic arm, which has made a real impact in its testing environment. “Best of all, it doesn’t mind
working 24 hours a day,” says Consterdine.

“As early adopters of the technology, we can definitely see the value in using robotics behind the scenes in R&D and product testing. But, we’re a long way off from being served by robots – I hope!”

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