CNN

These cute robots could deliver your next coffee

Sep 3, 2022, 6:00 PM
Facing rising costs and labor shortages, hospitality is searching for high-tech solutions to serve ...
Facing rising costs and labor shortages, hospitality is searching for high-tech solutions to serve up quality service to patrons — and robotics companies are answering the call. (CNN)
(CNN)

 (CNN) — Trundling around the hallways of Hong Kong’s Cyberport innovation hub, the little Rice Robot is on a mission.

The stocky white cuboid resembles Star Wars’ R2D2 robot in its build, but has the wide-eyed expression of Pixar’s WALL-E. It’s delivering drinks to patrons of the HFT Life cafe in a compartment in its “head” which is unlocked by the customer using a PIN code sent to their phone.

While Rice’s operations at the cafe are limited to distributing drinks, the compact robot is already providing a range of services at venues in Hong Kong and Japan. Rice is deployed as a bellhop at Hong Kong’s Dorsett Wanchai hotel, providing room service to guests. In Tokyo, it delivers snacks to employees at SoftBank Group’s headquarters from the building’s 7-11 convenience store. Earlier this year, Rice even made its TV debut on Cantonese drama series Communion, delivering coffee to a cast member.

Rice is part of a new generation of smart robots, capable of navigating complex and busy environments, including elevators. Equipped with light sensors, depth cameras and ultrasound sensors to avoid obstacles, Rice can maneuver freely around multi-story hotels and shopping centers, says Viktor Lee, founder and CEO of Rice Robotics.

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

“Even after COVID, people are paying a lot of attention to contact,” says Lee. He believes “this type of delivery robot will see steady growth in next five and 10 years.”

Pandemic robot boom

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

Supported by the Cyberport Incubation Programme, Lee and his team developed Rice, the first of its three robots. Designed for delivering goods, it can be used in healthcare, retail, logistics and hospitality.

The pandemic created new demand for service robots, with the market growing 12% in 2020 according to the International Federation of Robotics. This opened up a new role for Rice: quarantine hotel butler. In Hong Kong, strict regulations have seen inbound travelers quarantined for up to three weeks, and hotels have had to come up with new ways to minimize human contact and prevent cross-contamination.

The Dorsett Wanchai hotel started using Rice robots in June 2021. “It’s a great way to serve our guests and to maintain our service standards while adhering to social distancing and anti-pandemic measures,” says general manager Anita Chan, adding that feedback from guests has been positive: “With its cute appearance, Rice Robot is especially loved by the kids.”

Lee says that during the pandemic, clients began asking about cleaning robots. His team responded by developing a second robot, called Jasmine, in just eight weeks. Replacing Rice’s delivery compartment with a tank of sanitizing solution, Jasmine has two spray nozzles on her head to disperse disinfectant.

Lee created a new personality for Jasmine — which has already been deployed in malls, conference centers and airports — by giving her cartoon eyebrows that furrow in a serious expression. “She has to go out and sanitize the whole place, and she doesn’t want anyone to get in her way,” says Lee.

The team’s third product, Portal, is a taller robot with a touch screen, two-way intercom and streaming cameras for patrolling public areas. As well as making deliveries, Portal can guide visitors in venues such as shopping malls, conference centers and hospitals.

Hospitable robots

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

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

In response to travel and social restrictions, “there was an exodus of employees in our industry,” says Chon. Combined with concerns about hygiene and a growing acceptance of smart tech from younger customers, Chon sees robotics as the next step in the hospitality industry’s “digital transformation.”

However, the technology still has to overcome some hurdles to achieve the same efficiency as industrial robots. Costs are still high for this technology — Rice Robotics’ products cost from $9,000 per unit — and malls, hotels, and restaurants need to be adapted to be robot-friendly, says Chon.

Staff also need to know how to program the robots, a skill set that is lacking in the industry. To remedy this, Chon helped devise a new “smart tourism” curriculum covering AI, robotics, and big data, but says it will take time for current students to enter the workforce. “This is the way our industry is evolving,” he adds.

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

And while robots can help to minimize contact between people, they still need to be sanitized by staff between uses, says Chon.

Chon sees 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 “small, personal touches” that high-end luxury properties sell themselves on, he adds.

Rapid expansion

Rice Robotics isn’t the only player in the service robot space. Danish company UVD Robots provides robotic butlers to Yotel’s hotel in Boston. US-based Relay Robotics (formerly Savioke) has been building delivery bots for hotels since 2013, and Richtech Robotics’ Matradee robot assists human waitstaff as an autonomous serving tray.

However, Rice’s cute facial features add to its appeal — an intentional part of the design, says Lee. Studies have found that human-like features increase affinity towards robots, making Rice’s aesthetic a key part of its effectiveness in the hospitality sector for brands hoping to make a good impression on customers.

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

Beyond hospitality, Lee sees robots becoming more common in our homes, too. In a recent project with Japan’s 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 rather trying to help keep society moving,” says Lee, adding: “Robots are the future.”

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Today’s Top Stories

CNN

Tyre Nichols Protests...
Nouran Salahieh, Jamiel Lynch, Chuck Johnston, Shawn Nottingham, Andy Rose and Phil Gast, CNN

More protests today after release of video depicting the deadly police beating of Tyre Nichols

Protesters across the US heldmarches & rallies on Saturday, one day after the release of video showing the police beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis.
1 day ago
Temperatures dropping weather worsens...
Allison Chinchar, CNN Meteorologist

‘Dangerous’ arctic air returns this weekend after a month-long hiatus

What has been a mild start to 2023 will come to a halt this weekend as winter makes a roaring comeback across the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest.
1 day ago
Video footage of a traffic stop that led to the deadly beating of Tyre Nichols shows "acts that def...
Travis Caldwell, Jay Croft, Eric Bradner and Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN

Memphis releases video showing police stop that led to Tyre Nichols’ death

Editor’s note: This article contains graphic descriptions of violence. (CNN) — The city of Memphis has released police body camera and surveillance video showing the January 7 traffic stop and violent police confrontation that led to the death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols. During the initial encounter between Nichols and Memphis police, an officer can be seen […]
2 days ago
File**People walk past the entrance to a Bed Bath & Beyond retail store along Sixth Avenue in N...
Paul R. La Monica and Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN

Bed Bath & Beyond says it can no longer pay its debts

The end could be near for struggling retailer Bed Bath & Beyond, as it warned in a regulatory filing Thursday that it received a notice of default from its lender, JPMorgan Chase.
2 days ago
Five former Memphis police officers who were fired for their actions during the arrest of Tyre Nich...
Travis Caldwell and Jay Croft, CNN

‘You’re going to see acts that defy humanity,’ police chief says of Tyre Nichols video

Police also have not been able to find anything that's substantiated the probable cause for reckless driving by Nichols before his fatal encounter with police, she said.
2 days ago
Havasu Falls spills into the water pools below in Supai, Arizona, in October of 2016. Photo credit:...
Forrest Brown, CNN

Grand Canyon’s Havasu Falls to reopen to visitors after 3-year closure

 (CNN) — Havasu Falls, one of the most intriguing features of the Grand Canyon system, will be reopening to visitors after a three-year closure caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. But it’s with a catch. The reopening is scheduled for February 1; however, access will be limited initially to a certain, small group. People whose previous […]
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Banner with Cervical Cancer Awareness Realistic Ribbon...
Intermountain Health

Five Common Causes of Cervical Cancer – and What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk

January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness month and cancer experts at Intermountain Health are working to educate women about cervical cancer, the tests that can warn women about potential cancer, and the importance of vaccination.
Kid holding a cisco fish at winterfest...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Get Ready for Fun at the 2023 Bear Lake Monster Winterfest

The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest is an annual weekend event jam-packed full of fun activities the whole family can enjoy. This year the event will be held from January 27-29 at the Utah Bear Lake State Park Marina and Sunrise Resort and Event Center in Garden City, Utah. 
happy friends with sparklers at christmas dinner...
Macey's

15 Easy Christmas Dinner Ideas

We’ve scoured the web for you and narrowed down a few of our favorite Christmas dinner ideas to make your planning easy. Choose from the dishes we’ve highlighted to plan your meal or start brainstorming your own meal plan a couple of weeks before to make sure you have time to shop and prepare.
Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...
Macey's

5 Game Day Snacks for the Whole Family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...
Sorenson

The Best Tools for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Workplace Success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...
Macey's

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
These cute robots could deliver your next coffee