Almost exactly a year ago, I predicted that “2019 Will Be a Breakthrough Year for Food Robots.” Whether I was right or wrong in that prognostication probably depends on how generous you are feeling.
I mean, there was enough interest from startups and investors and buyers from across the food landscape to make our first ArticulATE Food Robot conference in April a sellout success. But 2019 was not the year in which robo-restaurants popped up on every corner.
To be fair, I did hedge my bets last year, when I wrote:
The food robots are coming and while they won’t become ubiquitous next year, 2019 will be a breakthrough year in which more robots go to work, and more money flows into food robot startups.
I may have hedged my bets, but there was still a lot of food robot activity in 2019. When assessing the past year in food robots, I think it’s best to create four buckets: creation, logistics, delivery and vending machines.
For robots that created food, there wasn’t much new activity in 2019. Miso Robotics’ Flippy is still making burger and fries (though the company lost both its CEO and COO), and Creator and Spyce remained single location robo-restaurants (Spyce even temporarily closed down to re-do its menu). But other than Picnic unveiling its assembly style robot, there wasn’t a lot new in the robotic kitchen.
Logistical robotics on the other hand, especially in the grocery space, saw some real activity in 2019. Takeoff Technologies, which builds automated micro-fulfillment centers in the backs of grocery stores, raised $25 million and announced partnerships with ShopRite, Loblaw and an expansion of its trial with Albertsons. Common Sense Robotics, which also does robot micro-fulfillment, changed its name to Fabric and raised $110 million. And Kroger has started building out five of it’s planned 20 standalone robot fulfillment warehouses.
As these fulfillment centers come online, and are able to fulfill online grocery orders faster, look for them to spur a virtuous cycle and help give online grocery shopping a boost (which will spur more robot fulfillment).
2019 was also the year delivery robots took to the streets! Well, mostly to the well-groomed walkways of college campuses. Starship’s little rover delivery robots landed on the campuses of George Mason University, Northern Arizona University, Purdue, University of Pittsburgh, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, University of Houston and the University of Texas at Dallas. There, they’ve been delivering snacks and other food to students wherever they might be studying.
With Refraction AI’s REV-1, we also saw the launch of a new type of autonomous robot that is ruggedized for inclement weather. And Finally, Nuro’s pod-like car was enlisted by Kroger to do grocery delivery in Houston.
There are still a ton of regulatory and ethical issues that need to be worked out before robots swarm public city streets, but they will continue to be ironed out over the coming year. For instance the California DMV will now be permitting autonomous vehicles under 10,001 pounds for commercial delivery, and California is a pretty good leading indicator for legislation that other states eventually adopt.
Finally, we get to what I think will wind up being the biggest trend in robotics — vending machines. In 2019 we saw the beginning of the transformation of vending machines from coils of packaged snacks to purveyors of high-end cuisine. Yo-Kai Express dishes up delicious hot ramen, Chowbotics’ Sally will make you a healthy salad, and both Briggo and Cafe X are bringing their robo-baristas to airports and other high-traffic locations.
Given their ability to serve people at all hours of the day or night, expect to see even more advancements and more deployments of vending machines across next year.
So as we close out 2019, I don’t think I was wrong about robots — but I wasn’t completely right either. Yes, there were more robots than ever involved with our food this year. But we are still a long ways off from them being mainstream.