Smart Service Robots Lighten the Workload for Restaurants

Robots are joining the wait staff at restaurants across Asia, and the COVID-19 pandemic is fueling interest in food service delivery robots in the US. They offer contactless interaction, promote social distancing, and can lighten the load of restaurants, many of which currently operate with a skeletal staff.


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Image credit: Bear Robotics

Restaurants have long struggled to find a steady cadre of employees to serve their diners. Customer-service businesses have been eyeing ways to automate systems that reduce their dependence on staff, which often has a high turnover rate. Due to pandemic restrictions, restaurants now also have to find ways to engage diners while maintaining social distancing guidelines and diminishing person-to-person contact. 

Robotic servers are one solution that can meet all these needs. A growing number of companies are developing small robots that can deliver food to diners and enhance the customer experience. The robots are primarily designed to act as runners, reducing the wait staff’s trips to the kitchen.

Intelligent Roving Robotic Staff                 

Bear Robotics has created Servi and its smaller companion, Servi Mini. The autonomous robots, based on Bear’s Penny robot, are designed for use in restaurants and other indoor dining venues to serve customers food and drinks and to bus tables.

The robots use artificial intelligence and object detection to navigate through tables, avoiding diners and wait staff, and can glide through spaces only 25 inches wide. Equipped with 3D cameras and laser sensors, Servi has 360-degree vision and can stop or change course if it detects an object or person in its path. It doesn’t require sensors or tags to navigate, but it does need to map the floor.

Both Servi robots feature a tablet-like touch screen interface, multiple shelves to hold food and dishes, and interchangeable trays and tubs that allow them to perform different tasks. They can be controlled from the touch screen or from an external tablet. By taking on food delivery and other repetitive tasks, Servi allows the human waitstaff to spend on average 30 to 40 percent more time interacting with customers.

Bots to Boost the Customer Experience

Other players are ramping up their offerings in the robot server space as well. Shanghai-based Keenon Robotics has developed the Peanut. The robot uses LiDAR, machine vision, depth vision, and Infrared and touch sensors to maneuver through the restaurant floor, bringing meals to diners. Peanut is used in restaurants located in several different countries.

Restaurant robot with multiple tiers to place trays

Image credit: Keenon

Last year, Chinese robot maker PuduTech introduced the BellaBot and HolaBot food service robots. BellaBot delivers food using AI-based positioning and navigation systems, scheduling algorithms, and a tactile feedback system that allows it to interact with customers.

The HolaBot table bussing robot can be summoned by an operator’s call. PuduTech’s system uses a centralized control system to schedule bussing of tables. The scheduler supports multiple calling devices, such as a beeper or app, and allows operators to determine which tables to bus based on location, time, or other factors.

Woowa has developed an autonomous food delivery robot that operates in 68 restaurants across Korea. The company recently teamed with consumer electronics company LG to develop robotic servers that integrate LG’s autonomous navigation and artificial intelligence with Woowa’s online food delivery platform and robot rental expertise.

Pandemic-Driven Market Growth

Demand for Servi has climbed 10 percent since the pandemic hit. The increase drove Bear Robotics to step up mass production of the robot; the company opened a new manufacturing facility in South Korea last April. By the fall, majority investor SoftBank Robotics, which developed the Pepper and Whiz robots, announced that Servi will be deployed in hundreds of restaurants across Japan, including more than 200 Denny’s diners.

Stateside, Servi operates at a handful of locations, including Amici’s Pizza, in Mountain View, CA, the Google campus in Silicon Valley, and several senior living communities across the country. More restaurants have expressed interest, including TGI Friday’s.

“We expect that the U.S. is going to probably lead in terms of robot orders and demands in 2022,” Bear’s co-founder and chief operating officer Juan Higueros has said. 

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