Service robots are attracting a lot of attention — and that’s the point

A new crop of robots working in malls, hotels, and stores are providing simple services, while getting the public more comfortable living and working alongside intelligent machines.

If you’ve stayed at Chicago’s upscale Hotel EMC2 or the Residence Inn outside the Los Angeles International Airport, you don’t need to be told robots are coming — you’ve likely already met one.

At these and two dozen other hotels around the country, a robot butler named Relay shows up outside guests’ doors to answer room service calls. The sleek, 3-foot machine with the top-loading bin delivers snacks and towels, along with a sheen of high-tech glamour. And in every hotel lobby it calls home, Relay appears to be a rock star.

More than just an electronic personality, Relay is in the vanguard of a cadre of mobile, autonomous robots designed to work with and around people in commercial and public spaces. The bots are building guards and greeters, gophers and guides, room cleaners and retail inventory assistants. And while they are a fraction of the overall robotics market, their public personas may help usher in the next wave of robots that eventually could work alongside people in offices, homes, schools, and hospitals.

Robotics companies are “getting robots out from behind their safety cages to serve an untapped need,” says Steve Cousins, chief executive officer of Savioke, the San Jose-based firm that makes Relay. “I think the market is going to blossom in the next decade.”

Since machines like Relay can interact with us in everyday life, they’re essentially helping the public get a lot more comfortable with robots, says John Santagate, a research manager for the management research firm IDC. Service-robot developers are innovating in human-safe technology, he notes, and “designing their robots to be non-intimidating, to be inviting. Some are even adding features that give a sense of humanity to their devices.”

Relay delivers towels and toiltetries to a hotel guest. Photo courtesy of Savioke

‘Cute’ and ‘adorable’

Consider Relay. It is programmed to beep and blink its round digital “eyes” whenever customers choose to enter positive feedback on its touchscreen — which helps explain how Relay is charming the guests and staff at the Aloft Long Island City.

The Queens, New York, hotel has had a Relay robot for about a year, says Aloft general manager Tara Sheikh. The hotel calls it Botlr. On social media, guests just call it “cute” or “adorable.” And guests’ most common reaction when Botlr makes a delivery? “They shoot a video,” Sheikh says. “My staff still takes videos of it. They pat it on its lid. The excitement is pretty much the same as the day it arrived.”

The story was much the same one summer Friday afternoon at Boston’s Prudential Center. The downtown mall is patrolled by the familiar-looking security guards. But for a few months this year, they had a companion. A white, rocket-shaped robot named K5, made by Silicon Valley’s Knightscope Robotics, made the rounds based on a predetermined “geo-fenced” route, in what a spokeswoman for the mall called “a short-term introduction to the technology” that ended in mid-September.

K5’s combination of sensors and high-definition cameras enable it to see and record everything around it, detect potential fire hazards and other threats, alert human guards—and most obviously on this particular day at the Pru, skirt people and objects in its path. While the lunchtime crowd mostly tossed the robot curious glances, it was pursued by a constant press of smiling followers, all jockeying for selfies with the machine.

Design is paramount for the makers of these new bots. While K5 may capture that sci-fi aesthetic, California startup Cobalt Robotics set out to ensure its machines feel familiar, like furniture. The company retained the famed Swiss industrial designer Yves Béhar, who conceptualized a machine ensconced in soft fabric instead of plastic and metal, with an eye to high-end office decor. Its shape resembles an elegant chess piece rather than a boxy droid.

“We knew from early on that as you move robots out into the world, design would drive how people feel about them,” says Cobalt CEO Travis Deyle. “And how people feel would drive adoption.”

Other robotics firms in the sector are designing neither to suggest cuteness nor familiarity, but to convey a sense of safety. Tally, an inventory auditing robot from California’s Simbe Robotics, looks like an oversized stick vacuum cleaner as it slowly trundles up and down the aisles of big box stores, and wheels nimbly around shoppers and shopping carts.

Soft and inviting designs may make these robots appealing. But their adoption and acceptance ultimately still depends on a business calculus. The robot makers need to convince the human beings in corporate executive suites that their machines add value and not just novelty.

Their ability to make that case is getting a lift from the economics of the robotics market, which is hot and predicted to get hotter.

Knightscope’s K5 is becoming a familiar sight in a handful of malls and corporate campuses. Photo courtesy of Knightscope

The technology multiplier

The rise of these helper bots owes a lot to a remarkable upsurge in the self-driving car sector. Private investors have poured $11 billion into autonomous vehicle development this year to date, 50 times the total investment in the entire robotics industry in 2011. 
That tsunami of investment has led to improved processing power and speed, better machine learning algorithms, and more refined computer vision and mapping capabilities, floating all bots, so to speak.

As a result, robotics startups are building sophisticated machines at a price point that can make them commercially viable and not just an intriguing research project. For example, the typical cost for a Relay, plus the bundle of 24/7 maintenance and software services and support that comes with it, is about $2,000 per month on a three-year service contract.

Cobalt and Knightscope also base their pricing on this “machine as a service” model. While the two companies declined to discuss their monthly charges, they indicated that the average cost per hour for all the hardware, software, maintenance, and support ranges around $7 or $8.

Those numbers compare favorably to the average pay for human workers in the two sectors. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage last year for a concierge worker — Relay’s closest job description — was $31,440. Security guards, according to the BLS, averaged $29,730 a year, or a little over $14 an hour. Adding in benefits (calculated according to BLS averages), the annual cost to employers would rise to about $44,000 and $41,000, respectively. 
Service robot manufacturers say that their machines are not designed to replace human workers but rather to make them more efficient and effective. Looking at these robots in that light, adding a robot or two to augment your workforce could be considered good business sense.

The overall robotics market is also trending in a favorable direction. The advancements in technology, demand and supply factors that are making the technology more available and therefore more affordable, and general confidence about the increasing capabilities of robots are helping the market grow faster than expected. The management research firm Boston Consulting Group recently revised its 2014 estimate of the world robotics market sharply upward — forecasting that it would reach $87 billion by 2025, with triple-digit growth in consumer robots alone — autonomous cars and home devices. Spending on service robots will be more modest, but even so, IDC forecasts 20 percent compounded annual growth in the sector through 2021.

And a recent report from the global market research firm Tractica predicted that worldwide revenues in a narrow sector of service bots — customer service — would grow from $54 million in 2016 to nearly $88 million by the end of 2022.

The NAVii, made by Fellow Robots, helps customers locate items at 11 Lowe’s stores in the San Francisco Bay area. Photo courtesy of Fellow Robots

A breakout opportunity

But even if this exact group of service robots fails to find a market, says University of California San Diego robotics professor Henrik Christensen, their technological sophistication makes them good at a lot of useful things, which bodes well for their future.

Christensen, who has served since 2009 as the director of the National Robotics Roadmap — the academic community’s effort to predict the industry’s future — says they are valuable mobile platforms for a whole range of services, many of which have not been imagined yet.

Home healthcare robots that can be both mobile and autonomous in the unstructured chaos of the private home? Cleaning bots able to do windows as well as floors and everything in between?

“I see the sector getting broader and growing faster than we expected even last year,” says Christensen. “The potential for more applications and more services makes these platforms very attractive.”

The robotics developers are thinking the same way. Relay is showing its versatility by making internal logistics deliveries at a FedEx facility. An inventory auditing robot made by Fellow Robots — yet another Silicon Valley product — is also being deployed at big box stores such as Lowe’s to help customers navigate the aisles and find that elusive nut, bolt, nail, or knob.

And Cobalt is building alternative applications into its security robot, for tasks ranging from mapping Wi-Fi signal strength to checking in hotel guests. Everyone in the sector is “looking for that one thing that’s going to drive mass adoption, like the spreadsheet did for PCs,” says Cobalt CEO Deyle. “It’s a matter of execution more than anything. I’m extremely excited about the prospects.”

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