Two years ago, I predicted that 2019 would be a breakout year for food robots. Let’s just say that I was a little premature with that particular prognostication. In my defense, I did said that they wouldn’t go mainstream, but still, a miss is a miss.
The reason I am dredging up my past mis-forecast, is because I’m circling back and re-purposing that robo-prediction for 2021. And like a lousy gambler, I swear, this time it’s different.
I swear that because, well, actually the robot landscape going into 2021 is much different than it was two years ago. Before going into why, it makes sense to take a step back and define our terms here. I’m using “robots” as kind of a catch all phrase. What I’m really talking about is the broad adoption of technology to automate current manual processes when it comes to the meal journey. Processes like food assembly, preparation and delivery.
I still don’t think food robots will be mainstream in 2021, there are bigger issues around production, scaling and regulation that will prevent that, but I do think a wave of regional and national retail and restaurant brands installing new automated food services.
Like just about everything else on the planet, the ongoing COVID pandemic is spurring the acceleration of automation across the food landscape. I sound like a broken record at this point, but robots don’t get sick and they can reduce the amount of human-to-human interaction necessary when getting food. Robots and automation can also help create social distancing for the humans are still working in restaurants and and kitchens.
Food Prep Robots
As noted above, White Castle announced a pilot with Flippy as a robotic fry cook this past summer. That pilot quickly expanded to a larger rollout of Flippy working 11 locations in the Chicago area. In addition to creating a more contactless experience, White Castle, which is open 24 hours, noted that Flippy helped with labor issues. Trying to schedule people for late night shifts is hard, so having a robot running the fry stations all day (and night) is helpful.
As restaurants work to recover from this devastating year, they will need to keep a close eye on labor and operating costs. Robots, like the pizza assemblers of Picnic and Middleby, can help with that by consistently applying the same amount of ingredients every time, thereby reducing waste. Plus, those machines can crank out tons of pizza per hour making them efficiently productive.
White Castle wasn’t the only major restaurant chain getting in on robotics. KFC in Korea announced a partnership with Hyundai Robotics this fall to develop of fried chicken making robot. And Costa Coffe, a division of Coca-Cola, acquired robot barista company, Briggo, to create Costa Coffee-branded automated coffee houses.
Then, of course, there is Spyce Kitchen launched version 2.0 of its robot-driven restaurant this year. The new concept is centered around its automated Infinite Kitchen, which allows for greater customization and personalization with orders. Spyce Kitchen doesn’t have any indoor seating, and is only doing delivery and pickup.
Food retailers are also getting in on the robot action. With the pandemic shutting down big, buffet-style salad and hot bars, some have turned to robotic vending machines like Chowbotics’ Sally. Coborn’s Market, for example, recently installed a Sally to serve up salads to its customers. And you might be seeing Chowbotics’s robots in more aisles of the grocery store. Earlier this year, Chowbotics CEO, Rick Wilmer outlined a vision where his robots are automating the free sample sections of supermarkets.
We are also reaching a point where smart vending machines are no longer stationary. Yo-Kai Express said it will be launching an autonomous mobile version of its hot ramen vending machine around the end of Q1 on two college campuses next year. This self-driving vending machine will come to you and make you a bowl of hot ramen on the spot.
Along with making food in restaurant kitchens, expect to see more robots rolling food out to tables (you know, when it’s safe to eat inside restaurants again). These autonomous carts on wheels can navigate to tables and around people to shuttle food and empty dishes to and from the back of house.
Both Pudu Robotics and Bear Robotics launched new versions of their server robots this year. LG is working with Woowa Brothers in Korea to develop their own robot waiter. And as of May this year, Keenon Robotics said it had 6,000 of its server robots already working in hotel and restaurant industry locations around the world.
Driving this push into robot servers is, again, COVID. Robots can work all day without getting sick, reduce human-to-human interaction, and could help with staffing issues for restaurants forced to cap indoor dining.
If you want a glimpse at the future restaurant robots, check out the video from this restaurant in Guangdong, China. There, robots take your orders, cook your meals and then drop your food on a tethered tray from the ceiling.
But robots won’t just be dropping off food to your table, they will be driving right up to your door. Delivery bots proliferated around the country and the world throughout this past year.
- In addition to all the college campuses it was on, Starship expanded to grocery delivery in Modesto, CA.
- Refraction was zipping lunch and groceries around Ann Arbor, MI.
- Kiwibot partnered with the City of San Jose for a fleet of delivery robots there.
- Yandex robots made meal deliveries in Moscow.
- Woowa Brothers started robot delivery in Seoul, South Korea.
- Panasonic started testing delivery robots in Japan.
- KFC China used self-driving vehicles for mobile chicken service in that country.
- Pink Dot market enlisted Postmates’ Serve robot to make deliveries around the West Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles.
There were also regulatory hurdles crossed this year, that will help open up more roads to autonomous vehicle delivery. Nuro was on a tear this year getting its self-driving R2 pod vehicle cleared by the U.S. Federal government to run on public roads, the OK from California’s government to run on public roads, and then just last week, approval from the State of California to launch a commercial autonomous vehicle service there.
To be sure, there are still plenty of city and state regulations that need to be worked out before fleets of robots will be scurrying around your town, but these were all positive steps in the right direction.
Tying it all together
Everything I mentioned above is great, and shows you how 2020 was a foundational year for robots that can be built upon in 2021.
But for me, the most exciting development for food robotics that happened this year and will pave the way for further innovation next year is the integration of robotics into other automated infrastructure.
In Seoul, Woowa Brothers partnered with networking platform developer HDC I-Controls and Hyundai Elevator to allow Woowa’s delivery robots to not just drive up to the front door of an apartment building, but also gain entrance to a secure building and autonomously ride the elevator. This will help a delivery robot get to a specific apartment inside a building.
In another example, Piestro will outfit some of its robotic pizza vending machines so that a Kiwibot delivery robot can autonomously pick up a pie and deliver it to a customer at home or at work or wherever.
In other words, delivery robots won’t just operate in silos, they will be connected to and woven into the larger fabric of our lives.
It’s not hard to see a human placing an order for a meal at their favorite restaurant via a mobile app. That order is cooked by a robotic chef, which hands it off to a prepping robot that plates and packages the meal before handing it to a server robot that runs it out to the sidewalk and deposits the food in a delivery robot who then drives it to the customer.
But we’re not done! Ideally that meal is packaged in a reusable container which a different robot picks up and takes to a cleaning facility like Dishcraft’s, where a robotic dishwasher cleans and sterilizes the containers to be used again.
OK. That vision is still a ways away and definitely won’t happen in 2021. But maybe it’ll make my prediction list for 2023? Stay tuned.
Oh! And mark your calendars for April 20, 2021 when we’ll be hosting our second Articulate Food Robotics Summit (virtally, of course). Reserve your spot today!