The Robots are Coming, With Cheetos
Relay is waist-high. It has mood lighting, touch screens, and chirps as it wheels along hotel hallways, delivering Cheetos, Kraft Mac and Cheese, and hairspray to guests. There are only a handful of Relays deployed in several Silicon Valley hotels right now. But Intel Corp., which invested in the robot's maker, Savioke Inc., thinks the future will be full of such helpers.
Underneath Relay's curvy exterior is artificial intelligence software that allows it to use cameras and other sensors to independently navigate through the hotel without running anyone over. Being aware of what's going around them is crucial if robots are going to transition from cages on factory floors to hotels, homes and other places where they could easily hurt humans.
"Technology's gotten to a point where robots can make sense of the world in real time,'' said Steve Cousins, Savioke's founder and chief executive officer. "If the robot can see the world, process what it's seeing, and make a decision in real time, then it can be around us.''
The markets that have provided Intel with the bulk of its sales-- personal computers and smartphones-- are slowing. Robotics is one of a number of fields that the company is hoping will pick up the slack. Yet robots alone can't make up for PC market contraction and they aren't even close to matching the 1.2 billion annual shipments of the smartphone sector.
"We are a couple of decades away from that,'' said Gartner robot analyst Gerald Van Hoy. He estimates the current market for robots is in the tens of millions of units per year and significant growth won't start until around 2020.
Savioke isn't chasing mass volume sales. It leases the robots to hotels and manages them remotely. That provides it with recurring income and incentivizes it to build products that are reliable and will last, Cousins said. It also removes the burden of maintenance and management from the hotel.
"The team at Savioke has done an exemplary job growing the market for service robotics,'' said Wendell Brooks, president of Intel's investment arm. "Intel Capital sees significant opportunity in this important new market."
At the Crowne Plaza San Jose, their version of Relay, which they've named Dash, started making deliveries last year. Front desk workers take orders from guests, then put the requested item into a plastic container under a lid on the top of the robot. They punch a room number into the touch screen and go back to whatever they were doing.
``In the beginning, everyone was just excited about a new toy,'' said David Wang, head of sales at the hotel. ``Then we saw all the benefits that he had for both the employees and the guests.''
The robot makes deliveries within around three minutes of the order being placed, Wang said. Dash chirps when it's about to move, and can summon elevators. It uses a map with sensors to navigate the building, and if it comes across a person or laundry cart, it either stops and waits or looks for a way around. When guests receive an automated call to let them know their delivery has arrived, they open the door to find Dash waiting with its container lid open. Giving the service a five-star rating on Dash's touch screen triggers a robot happy dance.