(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 telephone.

Whereas Rice’s operations on the cafe are restricted to distributing drinks, the compact robotic is already offering a variety of providers at venues in Hong Kong and Japan. Rice is deployed as a bellhop at Hong Kong’s Dorsett Wanchai resort, offering room service to visitors. In Tokyo, it delivers snacks to staff at SoftBank Group’s headquarters from the constructing’s 7-11 comfort retailer. Earlier this yr, Rice even made its TV debut on Cantonese drama sequence Communion, delivering espresso to a solid member.
Rice is a part of a brand new technology of sensible robots, able to navigating complicated and busy environments, together with elevators. Outfitted with gentle sensors, depth cameras and ultrasound sensors to keep away from obstacles, Rice can maneuver freely round multi-story accommodations and purchasing facilities, says Viktor Lee, founder and CEO of Rice Robotics.
Customers receive a PIN code, enabling them to open the hatch in Rice's "head" to retrieve their drinks.

Clients obtain a PIN code, enabling them to open the hatch in Rice’s “head” to retrieve their drinks.

Rice Robotics

Describing Rice as “your pleasant neighborhood robotic,” Lee hopes it could actually 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 a whole lot of consideration to contact,” says Lee. He believes “any such 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 unravel 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 pandemic created new demand for service robots, with the market rising 12% in 2020 based on the Worldwide Federation of Robotics. This opened up a brand new function for Rice: quarantine resort butler. In Hong Kong, strict rules have seen inbound vacationers quarantined for as much as three weeks, and accommodations have needed to give you new methods to attenuate human contact and forestall cross-contamination.

The Dorsett Wanchai resort began utilizing Rice robots in June 2021. “It is a good way to serve our visitors and to keep up our service requirements whereas adhering to social distancing and anti-pandemic measures,” says normal supervisor Anita Chan, including that suggestions from visitors has been optimistic: “With its cute look, Rice Robotic is particularly liked by the children.”

During the pandemic, the Dorsett Wanchai hotel in Hong Kong introduced a team of high-tech robots, including droids for cleaning and sanitizing, and Rice for contactless room service.

Throughout the pandemic, the Dorsett Wanchai resort in Hong Kong launched a crew of high-tech robots, together with droids for cleansing and sanitizing, and Rice for contactless room service.

Dorsett Wanchai

Lee says that throughout 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 character 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 she or he does not need anybody to get in her approach,” 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 similar to purchasing malls, convention facilities and hospitals.

Hospitable robots

Whereas industrial robots are commonplace within the automotive, manufacturing and electronics sectors, till just 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 staff in our trade,” says Chon. Mixed with considerations about hygiene and a rising acceptance of sensible tech from youthful clients, Chon sees robotics as the following step within the hospitality trade’s “digital transformation.”

Nevertheless, the know-how nonetheless has to beat some hurdles to realize the identical effectivity as industrial robots. Prices are nonetheless excessive for this know-how — Rice Robotics’ merchandise value from $9,000 per unit — and malls, accommodations, and eating places must be tailored to be robot-friendly, says Chon.

Employees additionally must know the way to program the robots, a talent set that’s missing within the trade. To treatment this, Chon helped devise a brand new “sensible tourism” curriculum overlaying AI, robotics, and massive knowledge, however says it can 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 touch screen, two-way intercom and streaming cameras for patrolling public areas — such as Captain C, pictured at the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Center.

Portal, Rice Robotics’ third product, is taller with a contact display screen, two-way intercom and streaming cameras for patrolling public areas — similar to Captain C, pictured on the Hong Kong Exhibition and Conference Middle.

Rice Robotics

Rice Robotics has created a fleet administration app for customers, and helps shoppers make infrastructural adjustments, similar to programming the robots and elevator methods to speak with one another. The startup additionally provides its robots on a month-to-month subscription service, beginning at $800 per unit, which incorporates technical and on-site assist.

And whereas robots might help to attenuate contact between individuals, they nonetheless must be sanitized by employees between makes use of, says Chon.

Chon sees nice alternative for robots to carry out easy, repetitive duties in finances and mid-range accommodations — however the know-how remains to be a great distance from replicating the “small, private touches” that high-end luxurious properties promote themselves on, he provides.

Fast enlargement

Rice Robotics is not the one participant within the service robotic area. Danish firm UVD Robots gives robotic butlers to Yotel’s resort in Boston. US-based Relay Robotics (previously Savioke) has been constructing supply bots for accommodations since 2013, and Richtech Robotics’ Matradee robotic assists human waitstaff as an autonomous serving tray.
Nevertheless, Rice’s cute facial options add to its enchantment — an intentional a part of the design, says Lee. Research have discovered that human-like options enhance affinity in the direction of robots, making Rice’s aesthetic a key a part of its effectiveness within the hospitality sector for manufacturers hoping to make a very good impression on clients.
Lee says robots like Rice can help reduce the cost of "last-mile delivery" and increase efficiency.

Lee says robots like Rice might help cut back the price of “last-mile supply” and enhance effectivity.

Rice Robotics

Rice Robotics has expanded quickly throughout the pandemic, from an three-person crew in 2019 to 26. Now primarily based 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 getting old inhabitants, Lee says robots are important to assist Japan’s retail and hospitality sectors.

Past hospitality, Lee sees robots changing into extra frequent in our properties, too. In a current undertaking with Japan’s postal service, a number of Rice items had been deployed in a high-rise constructing to assist ship parcels and mail to residents’ doorways.

“Robots are usually not taking individuals’s jobs, however quite attempting to assist preserve society shifting,” says Lee, including: “Robots are the long run.”

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