(CNN) — Trundling across the hallways of Hong Kong’s Cyberport innovation hub, the little Rice Robotic is on a mission.
The stocky white cuboid resembles Star Wars’ R2D2 robotic in its construct, however has the wide-eyed expression of Pixar’s WALL-E. It is delivering drinks to patrons of the HFT Life cafe in a compartment in its “head” which is unlocked by the shopper utilizing a PIN code despatched to their cellphone.
Clients obtain a PIN code, enabling them to open the hatch in Rice’s “head” to retrieve their drinks.
Describing Rice as “your pleasant neighborhood robotic,” Lee hopes it will possibly assist the hospitality sector fight labor shortages because the inhabitants ages, whereas interesting to the post-pandemic demand for heightened hygiene protocols.
“Even after COVID, individuals are paying numerous consideration to contact,” says Lee. He believes “the sort of supply robotic will see regular development in subsequent 5 and 10 years.”
Pandemic robotic growth
With a background in logistics, Lee based Rice Robotics in 2019 to resolve the problem of “last-mile supply.”
Supported by the Cyberport Incubation Programme, Lee and his crew developed Rice, the primary of its three robots. Designed for delivering items, it may be utilized in healthcare, retail, logistics and hospitality.
The Dorsett Wanchai lodge began utilizing Rice robots in June 2021. “It is a good way to serve our friends and to keep up our service requirements whereas adhering to social distancing and anti-pandemic measures,” says basic supervisor Anita Chan, including that suggestions from friends has been optimistic: “With its cute look, Rice Robotic is particularly liked by the children.”
Through the pandemic, the Dorsett Wanchai lodge in Hong Kong launched a crew of high-tech robots, together with droids for cleansing and sanitizing, and Rice for contactless room service.
Lee says that through the pandemic, shoppers started asking about cleansing robots. His crew responded by growing a second robotic, known as Jasmine, in simply eight weeks. Changing Rice’s supply compartment with a tank of sanitizing answer, Jasmine has two spray nozzles on her head to disperse disinfectant.
Lee created a brand new persona for Jasmine — which has already been deployed in malls, convention facilities and airports — by giving her cartoon eyebrows that furrow in a critical expression. “She has to exit and sanitize the entire place, and he or she does not need anybody to get in her means,” says Lee.
The crew’s third product, Portal, is a taller robotic with a contact display screen, two-way intercom and streaming cameras for patrolling public areas. In addition to making deliveries, Portal can information guests in venues equivalent to procuring malls, convention facilities and hospitals.
Whereas industrial robots are commonplace within the automotive, manufacturing and electronics sectors, till lately most service robots in hospitality had been used for novelty functions.
However the pandemic has modified that, says Kaye Chon, dean of the College of Resort and Tourism Administration on the Hong Kong Polytechnic College.
In response to journey and social restrictions, “there was an exodus of workers in our trade,” says Chon. Mixed with considerations about hygiene and a rising acceptance of good tech from youthful clients, Chon sees robotics as the subsequent step within the hospitality trade’s “digital transformation.”
Nevertheless, the expertise nonetheless has to beat some hurdles to attain the identical effectivity as industrial robots. Prices are nonetheless excessive for this expertise — Rice Robotics’ merchandise value from $9,000 per unit — and malls, lodges, and eating places should be tailored to be robot-friendly, says Chon.
Workers additionally have to know methods to program the robots, a ability set that’s missing within the trade. To treatment this, Chon helped devise a brand new “good tourism” curriculum overlaying AI, robotics, and massive knowledge, however says it is going to take time for present college students to enter the workforce. “That is the best way our trade is evolving,” he provides.
Portal, Rice Robotics’ third product, is taller with a contact display screen, two-way intercom and streaming cameras for patrolling public areas — equivalent to Captain C, pictured on the Hong Kong Exhibition and Conference Middle.
Rice Robotics has created a fleet administration app for customers, and helps shoppers make infrastructural modifications, equivalent to programming the robots and elevator techniques to speak with one another. The startup additionally gives its robots on a month-to-month subscription service, beginning at $800 per unit, which incorporates technical and on-site help.
And whereas robots may also help to reduce contact between folks, they nonetheless should be sanitized by workers between makes use of, says Chon.
Chon sees nice alternative for robots to carry out easy, repetitive duties in funds and mid-range lodges — however the expertise continues to be a great distance from replicating the “small, private touches” that high-end luxurious properties promote themselves on, he provides.
Lee says robots like Rice may also help cut back the price of “last-mile supply” and enhance effectivity.
Rice Robotics has expanded quickly through the pandemic, from an three-person crew in 2019 to 26. Now based mostly within the Hong Kong Science and Know-how Park, the corporate opened an workplace in Japan in 2021 to assist handle its rising shopper base there. With a quickly ageing inhabitants, Lee says robots are important to help Japan’s retail and hospitality sectors.
Past hospitality, Lee sees robots changing into extra widespread in our houses, too. In a current challenge with Japan’s postal service, a number of Rice models had been deployed in a high-rise constructing to assist ship parcels and mail to residents’ doorways.
“Robots should not taking folks’s jobs, however relatively attempting to assist hold society transferring,” says Lee, including: “Robots are the long run.”