These cute robots can serve up your next coffee

These cute robots can serve up your next coffee

(CNN) – A little rice robot is roaming the corridors of the Cyberport Innovation Center in Hong Kong, on a mission.

The blocky white cube resembles Star Wars’ R2D2 robot in construction, but has the wide-eyed expression of Pixar’s WALL-E. She delivers drinks to HFT Life Café customers in a room in her “head” that the customer opens using a PIN code sent to their phone.

While Rice’s coffee shop operations are limited to dispensing drinks, the tiny robot already offers a range of services in places in Hong Kong and Japan. Rice is posted as a salesperson at the Dorsett Wanchai Hotel in Hong Kong, providing room service for guests. In Tokyo, it serves snacks to employees at the SoftBank Group headquarters from the convenience store in Building 7-11. Earlier this year, Rice did her job First TV appearance on the Cantonese drama series Communionto deliver coffee to a cast member.
Rice is part of a new generation of intelligent robots capable of navigating complex and crowded environments, including elevators. Says Victor Lee, Founder and CEO of rice robots.

Customers receive a PIN code, which enables them to open the slot in Rice’s “head” to redeem their drinks.

rice robots

Describing Rice as “your friendly neighborhood robot,” Lee hopes he can help the hospitality sector combat labor shortages as the population ages, while appealing to post-pandemic demand for increased hygiene protocols.

“Even after COVID, people pay a lot of attention to communication,” Lee says. He believes that “this type of delivery robot will experience steady growth in the next five to ten years.”

Pandemic robots boom

With a background in logistics, Lee founded Rice Robotics in 2019 to solve the challenge of “final delivery”.

With support from Cyberport Incubation, Lee and his team developed the first of three Rice robots. Designed to deliver merchandise, it can be used in healthcare, retail, logistics and hospitality.

The pandemic has created a new demand for service robots, with the market Growing by 12% in 2020 According to the International Federation of Robotics. This opened up a new role for Rice: quarantining a hotel valet. In Hong Kong, strict regulations have seen incoming travelers quarantined for up to three weeks, and hotels have had to devise new ways to reduce human contact and prevent cross-contamination.

The Dorsett Wanchai Hotel began using Rice robots in June 2021. “It is a great way to serve our guests and maintain our service standards while adhering to social distancing and anti-epidemic measures,” says General Manager Anita Chan, adding these comments from guests. He was positive: “With its cute appearance, Rice Robot is especially loved by children.”

During the pandemic, Hong Kong's Dorsett Wanchai has provided a team of high-tech robots, including robots for cleaning and sanitizing, and Rice for contactless room service.

During the pandemic, Hong Kong’s Dorsett Wanchai has provided a team of high-tech robots, including robots for cleaning and sanitizing, and Rice for contactless room service.

Dorsett Wanchai

During the pandemic, Lee says, customers started asking about cleaning robots. His team responded by developing another robot, called Jasmine, in just eight weeks. Replacing the Rice delivery compartment with a tank of sanitizing solution, Jasmine has two spray nozzles on her head to disperse the sanitizer.

Lee created a new character for Jasmine—which has already been popularized in malls, convention centers, and airports—by giving her cartoonish eyebrows that curled into a serious expression. “She has to go out and sanitize the whole place, she doesn’t want anyone to stand in her way,” she tells me.

The team’s third product, the Portal, is a taller robot with a touch screen, two-way intercom and streaming cameras for patrolling public spaces. In addition to making deliveries, Portal can direct visitors at places such as malls, convention centers, and hospitals.

hospitable robots

While industrial robots are common in the automotive, manufacturing and electronics sectors, until recently most service robots in hospitality were used for new purposes.

Kai Chun, dean of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says the pandemic has changed that.

“There has been a mass exodus of employees in our industry,” says Chun, in response to travel restrictions and social restrictions. Combined with concerns about cleanliness and the growing acceptance of smart technology from younger customers, Chun sees robotics as the next step in the “digital transformation” of the hospitality industry.

However, the technology still has to overcome some obstacles to achieve the same efficiency as industrial robots. The costs of this technology are still high—Rice Robotics products cost from $9,000 per unit—and shopping malls, hotels, and restaurants must be adapted to be robot-friendly, Chun says.

Employees also need to know how to program robots, a skill set that the industry lacks. To address this, Chun has helped devise a new “smart tourism” curriculum that covers artificial intelligence, robotics and big data, but says it will take time for current students to enter the job market. “This is how our industry is evolving,” he adds.

The Portal, Rice Robotics' third product, is taller with a touch screen, two-way intercom system and streaming cameras to patrol public spaces - like Captain C, the photographer at the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Center.

The Portal, Rice Robotics’ third product, is taller with a touch screen, two-way intercom system and streaming cameras to patrol public spaces – like Captain C, the photographer at the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Center.

rice robots

Rice Robotics has created a fleet management application for users, and helps customers make changes to infrastructure, such as programming robots and elevator systems to communicate with each other. The startup also offers its bots on a monthly subscription service, starting at $800 per unit, which includes tech and on-site support.

And while robots can help reduce interpersonal contact, they still need to be sanitized by employees between uses, Chun says.

Chun sees a great opportunity for robots to perform simple, repetitive tasks in budget and mid-range hotels — but the technology is still a long way from replicating the “little personal touches” that luxury real estate sells itself on, he adds.

rapid expansion

Rice Robotics is not the only player in the field of service robots. The Danish company offers UVD Robots bots To the Yotel in Boston. based in the United States Relay Robotics (formerly Savioke) has been building hotel delivery robots since 2013, and Richtech Robotics’ The Matradee robot assists the human waiter as a standalone serving tray.
However, Rice’s cute facial features add to her allure — and it’s an intentional part of the design, Lee says. studies I’ve found that human-like features increase affinity with robots, making Rice’s aesthetic a key part of her efficacy in the hospitality sector for brands hoping to make a good impression on customers.
Lee says robots like Rice can help reduce the cost of

Lee says that robots like Rice could help reduce the cost of “last-end delivery” and increase efficiency.

rice robots

Rice Robotics has expanded rapidly during the pandemic, from a three-person team in 2019 to 26. Now, headquartered in the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park, the company opened an office in Japan in 2021 to help manage its growing customer base there. With a rapidly aging population, Lee says robots are needed to support Japan’s retail and hospitality sectors.

In addition to hospitality, Lee sees robots becoming more common in our homes as well. In a recent project with the Japanese Postal Service, several rice units were deployed in a high-rise building to help deliver parcels and mail to residents’ doors.

“Robots are not taking people’s jobs, but they are trying to help keep society moving,” Lee says, adding, “Robots are the future.”

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