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The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has catapulted a number of innovations into fast forward mode; the newest on the block being the surge in the number, and design, of robots. Robots were initially designed for economic betterment & efficiency, labour shortage alleviation, employees’ retention and for consistency of precision services; they are now emerging as safer and human-free options during the pandemic. Food service establishments have taken a major hit as they got reduced to drive-thru and curbside service, and home delivery during the pandemic – with a major struggle to keeping foods and surfaces free from the virus on the one hand, and trying to stay open and retaining employees on the other.

Bear Robotics, a robotics and artificial intelligence company, and SoftBank Robotics Group, a leading manufacturer and solutions provider, have collaborated to bring a new autonomous indoor robot named Servi to the food service and hospitality sector. 3D cameras and Lidar sensors help the robot navigate between the kitchen and the tables with a nearly one-centimetre precision, using the same technology as automated driverless cars! Servi is set for launch in January in Japan with each unit capable of holding one-tray (Servi Mini to serve only drinks) or two-trays (Servi to serve food and drinks) and a buss tub for bussing used dishes. The Servis come at a US$950 per month plan on a three-year contract, and can be operated by an on-board touch-screen or remotely by a tablet. The intention is not only to augment the wait staff in a restaurant but to also ensure contactless delivery of food, maintaining social distancing, and to enhance the overall customer experience. The agility, object detection capability and their simplistic design have evoked significant interest in the hospitality industry worldwide to automate manual work. SoftBank’s famous humanoid robot, Pepper, has been used throughout the pandemic as a greeter to ease loneliness among mild COVID-19 cases in Japan and is being touted to monitor customers in conjunction with thermal scanners.  Versions of the robot are helping in German grocery stores to ensure safe distancing, while the cleaning vacuum robot Whiz has been used in hotels and offices, and not to forget the wildest four-legged robot Spot fitted with a 360-degree camera & developed by Boston Dynamics to monitor and patrol at even the roughest of sites safely and endlessly. The robots are becoming almost real!

Similarly industry leaders SLAM Technology have developed Pudu Robots with multi-robot collaboration capability for any complex scenario using real-time positioning, high-precision map reconstruction, optimal path planning and instantaneous intelligent obstacle avoidance. These have found varied uses from automating delivery of documents in office facilities; to contactless guest journey in hotel restaurants; to germ-free delivery and distribution of supplies in hospitals; or weaving their way through internet cafes and karaoke bars. Designed as a stack of adjustable trays, they can have an enclosed cabin             (PuduBox versus PuduBot) and can be made available in six delivery modes – food delivery mode, birthday mode, special mode, direct delivery mode, cruise mode or the tableware collection mode! And that too to provide uninterrupted operations for a whole day after a mere 4 hours full-charging.

Internet of Things (IoT) robots have been providing labour efficiency solutions to manufacturing plants and food chains to automate repetitive, low satisfaction work. Companies have designed Flippy, a robotic arm for frying and flipping burgers; Motoman SDA5, a culinary savvy robot mimicks precise human movements from mixing to chopping;  Cocktail-Making Robot ‘Monsieur’, the artificial bartender, Suzumo Sushi Chef who composes and cuts and rolls the perfect sushi; Noodle-Making Robot that can slice noodles from a firm piece of dough and toss them into boiling water; Makr Shakr Bartender – a pimped out robotic bartender with three arms to imitate the movements of a human bartender (currently in employment on the Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas cruise ship); Beer-Tasting Beer Tongue, an electronic tongue to distinguish between different types of beer by “tasting” the electrochemical compounds inside the beer; PancakeBot uses printer technology to make a variety of shapes of pancakes, including a spot-on replica of the Eiffel Tower; Oreo-Making Robot, the tiniest and cutest robot designed to fill custom-created cookies with a variety of flavoured cream. Gorgeous, no? The tech-savvy start-ups in Bengaluru and Chennai have come up with all sizes of robots ranging from those to cook standard dishes for a large facility to the niche personalised variety which can be programmed to not only alter the quantity of spices but incorporate human judgement in cooking i.e, specify steps like cook the onion till translucent/grey/fully caramalised, etc. to get the perfect ‘ghar ka khaana’! In North India, the success of Rotimatic, the automaton to make rotis, has kindled the hope of a Dalmatic and a Sabzimatic in the near future !!! All these are getting ideated, created and churned out at an accelerated pace as the pandemic has created an urgency for ‘safe food’.

Researchers at the Swiss Institute of Technology have created small robots called RoomBots to support the elderly and the physically disabled. These are self-configurable modular robots, come in a module of four half spheres, can change shape and move to form grippers to attach to any furniture to aid in walking or bringing the items closer to the person. On a similar track, a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), in collaboration with Ava Robotics, has designed a new robotic system that powerfully disinfects surfaces and neutralises aerosolised forms of the coronavirus using a UV-C light fixture. Moving at a speed of 0.22 miles per hour, the robot can disinfect a 4,000- square-foot warehouse in just half an hour. This experimental robot system has solved many algorithmic challenges and can be used for autonomous disinfection of schools, dorms, airplanes, and grocery stores. The surgical robotic system, Da Vinci, used for its precision and flexibility is immensely useful in the pandemic in maintaining distance between the surgeon and the patient.

Nearly 35,000 of SoftBank Robotics’ robots are already in active deployment in over 70 countries and offer innovative applications relevant in the fields of retail, tourism, defence, healthcare, finance, education, facilities management and cleaning. The technological innovations in these fields seem to be well timed – just the right thing, at the right time, futuristic and safe … to usher in a new ‘normal’.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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