SCIENCE AND TECH
Robots Are Delivering Room Service at Hotels Now
Someday robots will probably take your job. In the meantime, they’re bringing bubbly and toothpaste to your room
When your company makes robots that make room deliveries in hotels, you learn a lot about people.
“Our first robot had a lot of problems with having his eyes poked out by curious kids,” says Tessa Lau, co-founder and (this is best title ever) chief robot whisperer with Savioke, a robot development company based in San Jose, California. “Kids love to hug robots.”
Savioke’s robots, called Relay Robots, bleep and bloop around different hotels across the world. Around 18 are in service, with contracts signed in 55 locations that include hotels and other industries. They tote chicken wings, tooth brushes, coffee, Champagne and other items guests might request. They’re about a metre (three feet) tall, and they look like a hybrid of R2D2 and a roving trash can.
Each has a different name and personality. At the newly opened Aloft and Element Dallas Love Field, his name is BOTLR, and he’s a star. “Guests love him. We get a million selfies with him, we get tags with him, they take snaps with him,” says Arzu Molubhoy, the chief financial officer for Atlantic Hotels Group, which co-developed the Dallas property. “It’s actually a lot of fun.”
At Rising Star Ranch in Mesquite, Nevada, Relay is named Champ, reflecting the property’s sports theme. In Los Angeles, the Residence Inn Marriott near LAX has Wally; its neighbouring property, Embassy Suites by Hilton, has Winnie to help serve guests. You get the picture.
Billy talked with Lau, the robot whisperer, to learn more about droid delivery, today and in the future.
Q: What’s the history of Savioke and Relay?
A: All of our seven co-founders were at a company called Willow Garage before we founded Savioke. Willow Garage made big, expensive robots that weren’t really ready for prime time yet. Savioke was founded with all of us sharing a common vision of getting robots out into the world where everyone can interact with them. Our first product is Relay, and Relay’s goal is to, essentially, solve the problem of indoor delivery. He can move, ferry things around from person to person inside of buildings. He does that really, really well. We spent the last three years perfecting that technology.
"When Relay’s looking at you, he blinks. It’s a small touch but it really adds so much personality"
When you started, was hospitality the target?
When we started Savioke, our first task was to figure out: “What are we building and who is going to pay money for it?” Hospitality was one of our early ideas and it turned out to be the one that we stuck with because we’re getting traction in it. There are other ideas, which we have some pilots with: eldercare, with hospitals, office buildings, light industrial scenarios, high-rise residential properties.
In developing Relay, what did you learn along the way?
Hospitality is really about creating that experience for people who come to stay at your property. And Relay is just a part of that super guest experience – he goes and entertains your guests. He can entertain the kids. He’s there, available to pose with you for a selfie or take a photo with you. He can tell you jokes. And so we’re learning that nailing that guest interaction is really what’s making Relay such a powerful thing for these hotels.
Did you expect that, early on?
We didn’t really realize that it was going to be so driven by interaction. … We’re coming from the robotic space and robotics is really about the functionality. And so we thought, “OK, all we have to do is get from point A to point B and then we’re done. Right?”
We have a designer on board who’s always been pushing us to make Relay more user-friendly and more approachable. And it turns out, that’s super important to our customers, so we’re really focusing on that as we’re going forward.
When Relay’s looking at you, he blinks. It’s a small touch but it really adds so much personality to our robots. People love the way Relay is cute and friendly and they want to have more of him.
Was it challenging to come up with that personality?
You know, that’s, it’s been a work in progress, all along. One of the things I was involved in on the personality side was trying to decide how Relay interacts with people during the elevator ride that he’s taking. In order to deliver up to a guest room on an upper story, he’ll have to take the elevator, and he does that by getting on, alongside people and their luggage and their dogs and their kids. And it’s a small, enclosed environment, and you can imagine the people getting a little bit scared of having a machine in that small, close environment with them.
But one of the things we did when we designed Relay’s elevator behaviour was to make him really super polite. So as he’s getting on he’ll say, “Excuse me, please. I’m trying to get on.” And as he’s trying to get off, “Pardon me, I’m trying to get off here.”
And if he can’t make it because the doors close and he missed his stop, he’ll pause and say, “Sorry, I missed my stop. I’ll wait for the next one.” Otherwise, if it’s really unpredictable, people can be scared of new technology and they don’t know what it’s going to do. We’re trying to make it as transparent and friendly and approachable as we can.
"There’s a big safety angle to having robots deliver to your door. Especially [for] women travelling alone."
That’s really funny, and elevators are so potentially awkward anyway.
The other funny thing that we did when we were asking ourselves what he was going to do as he was taking the elevator was we looked around at what people do. They stand. They face forward with their hands at their side and you don’t look at anyone else. And so that’s exactly what we programed Relay to do. He gets on the elevator. Turns around to face the front and doesn’t look at anyone.
He needs a decoy smart phone to pull out and stare at. So tell me a little about how he acclimates to each hotel?
There’s a training phase. We send our technicians out to the property, along with Relay on his first week on the job. And they train him [using a PlayStation 3 joystick] on where he needs to go. We call that mapping. So essentially, one of our technicians drives Relay around with a joystick and teaches him: “This is what the hotel looks like. Here’s the front desk … and so on.”
After that training period, he has [an internal] map of all of the property and all of the places where he is expected to work and from then on he can be fully autonomous and the front desk can send him on deliveries.
And the hotels prefer to lease, rather than buy?
Our business model is based on selling robots as a service. We don’t sell the units themselves. We sell a robot delivery service. And so for a flat monthly fee [about $2,000], you get one robot who does 24/7 deliveries. We take care of all of the maintenance. You have a 24/7 support number. You can call if anything goes wrong and we’ll take care of it.
Some people fear robots will take our jobs. How do you respond to that?
In one sense we’re creating jobs, right? Because all of these robots have to get built, have to get installed, so the robotics industry is actually creating a huge number of jobs. But then, I think on the hospitality side, we believe that hotels are actually hiring more people as a result of having a Relay on their staff, because Relay actually generates so much traffic and more people coming to stay at the hotel.
And they don’t have to tip the robot.
No tip. There’s actually a big safety angle to having robots deliver to your door. Especially [for] women travelling alone. No one likes having a strange man coming to your door, especially in the middle of the night. Women travelers love having robot delivery because they don’t have to get dressed. They don’t have to worry about whose showing up at their door. It’s a very consistent, predictable experience.
My last question is, as robot whisperer, what are you asked the most?
A question I get asked is, “What is the future of robots, especially in hospitality?” My answer for that is within five years we’re going to see robots becoming the standard for hospitality. It’s going to be a feature just like a concierge or a pool. So when you go to a hotel it will be on the list of amenities you can get when you go to that hotel. If you go to a hotel that doesn’t have a robot, sometime soon, you’re going to ask, “Where’s the robot?”