Right now the year 2019 is still (slightly) in the future, but 2019 will also be a year where we start to feel like we’re living in the future. The reason for that can be summed up in one word: ROBOTS.
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.
2018 was already a pretty a banner year for food robot companies, including:
- Cafe X raised $12.1 million and opened a sidewalk kiosk in San Francisco
- Zume added a second pizza robot, and got $375M from Softbank
- Bear Robotics raised $2 million and its Penny helped shuttle food and empty plates around a Seoul Pizza Hut
- MontyCafe started slinging java in Russia
- Ekim raised €2.2M for PAZZI the French pizza robot
- Robotic restaurant, Spyce opened up in Boston and raised $21 million
- Haidilao and Panasonic partnered up for a robot hot pot restaurant and plan to open 5,000 more locations
- JD.com opened the first of a planned 1,000 of its own robo-restaurants
- 6d Bytes opened launched the Blendid bot to serve up smoothies
- Alibaba opened up robot.he restaurant
- Miso Robotics raised $10 million, put its Flippy burger ‘bot to work at Caliburger, where it immediately got suspended, only to go back to work there and then got a gig frying chicken tenders at Dodger Stadium which made Walmart want to try it out
- Creator launched its own burger bot based restaurant
- Takeoff started testing robot grocery fulfillment at Sedanos and then Albertsons and Ahold Delhaize wanted in on that robot action
- Kiwi, Starship and Marble all rolled out expanded rover robot food delivery
- Sony partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to develop food robots
- Woowa Bros. just got $320M to expand its autonomous robot program
Look, I can do this all day. You get the point. From restaurants to grocery stores, robots will play an increasingly important role in the way we get our food.
We’ve said it ad nauseum, but robots are really good for things like manual, repetitive tasks. In the food world, this can also mean taking over dangerous jobs that involve hot cooktops. And since robots can run 24 hours a day, they are pretty ideal for making food and/or deliveries on demand, around the clock. Next year is when they’ll move from pilot programs and tests to become more a part of our everyday lives.
For restaurants, high-traffic, high-volume locales will be the first to dive more deeply into the robotics game. Levy, a hospitality company which owns a number of entertainment and sporting venues, is an investor in Miso Robotics . After Flippy’s successful debut at Dodger Stadium, it only makes sense that it will pop up in other such arenas. Additionally, Briggo launched its Coffee Haus robot/vending machine in the Austin Airport this year. Both Briggo and Cafe X are targeting airports as prime locations for their robo-baristas.
On the grocery side, both Alberstons and Walmart are building out robot-driven micro-fulfillment centers inside their stores, where robots on rails bring items to humans who bag them up for customer pick up or delivery. The result is an online order that can be fulfilled in as little as a half hour. This type of speed will spur adoption as Takeoff, one of the startups building out these robotic fulfillment centers, says it will open five robot fulfillment sites in Q1 of 2019. Not to be left behind, Kroger is building out the first of its robot-driven smart warehouse fulfillment centers near its Cincinnati HQ.
Robots won’t be relegated to restaurants and storerooms either. Li’l autonomous rover bots will be out rolling down the sidewalks as well. Kiwi is now making food delivery in Berkeley and Westwood, CA (that one robot catching fire notwithstanding). Starship is operating on corporate campuses and is doing package and grocery delivery in the U.K. And Marble is working with the city of Dallas to test out robot deliveries there. Even well-funded delivery service, Postmates, decided to build and launch their own delivery robot.
The other half of this equation will be seeing how cities react to delivery robots. What kind of legislation will they put in place as humans start to share sidewalks with more and more robots potentially underfoot? Will cities and states be strict, or more open to the change?
Robots however, as we’ve also said repeatedly, will transform the workplace — but not just in the number of jobs available to humans. Yes, millions of traditional jobs will be lost to automation over the coming years. This is a socio-economic problem that we should be laying the groundwork to solve now rather than struggling to deal with it after it’s happened. But robots could also open up entirely new job opportunities, as a pop-up cafe in Japan recently did. Though only open for a brief time, the Dawn Avatar Cafe in Tokyo featured robots driven remotely by those with disabilities from their homes. This won’t happen in every robot restaurant, but it highlights a different type of thinking about robots that we can embrace.
And embracing food robots is something we’ll have to do, not just in the U.S., but around the world. It’s not a question of if the robot revolution will happen, and it’s increasingly less of a question as to when the robot revolution will happen–because it’s already started.