Rosie the Maid 2.0: Savioke Builds a Hotel Delivery Robot
Robots have long been cast as human helpers in movies and the public imagination. Now delivery robots are becoming a reality—so long as the robots stay indoors.
The Aloft Hotel in Palo Alto, CA, is now employing a robot from Silicon Valley startup Savioke to deliver small items from the front desk to rooms. By next year, Savioke expects more of its robots, called SaviOne, to roam more hotels in the Aloft hotel’s chain as well as other hotels, says Steve Cousins, the CEO and founder of Savioke.
Service robots aren’t totally new. Healthtech company Aethon says that its hospital delivery robots are used in more than 140 hospitals in the U.S. Cambridge, MA-based Vecna also sells a robot to deliver supplies in hospitals. But hotels are a new market, which could lead a new wave of robot companies, fueled by cheaper technology, that target service-based businesses, including restaurants and elder care facilities.
The SaviOne, which has roughly the same profile as R2-D2 from “Star Wars,” is able to navigate through hotels, including operating the elevator. To operate it, a hotel staffer punches in a room number and, once the robot reaches the room, it phones the guest. The top of the robot has a small hatch, which guests lift to get the towel or toothbrush they ordered.
For Cousins, the SaviOne and planned follow-ons are a way to take mobile, autonomous robots out of academic settings and into the real world. Cousins was the former CEO of Willow Garage, a hotbed for robotics development in Silicon Valley which has spun off eight companies, but has all but suspended operations.
Willow Garage developed the PR2, a robot aimed primarily at academics to do research, and the open-source Robot Operating System (ROS). But Cousins and other former employees wanted to build commercial robots.
“A $400,000 robot isn’t going to make that much of an impact outside the world of academia,” Cousins. “We wanted to see robots out in the world as the next step and thought the technology was there to do autonomous robots.”
In April, Savioke raised $2 million in seed funding from Morado Venture Partners, AME Cloud Ventures, and Google Ventures and hopes to raise a Series A round next year, according to Cousins.
Savioke decided to target the hotel industry because robots have the potential to deliver tangible labor savings, he says. Aloft’s owner expects the delivery robot will allow staff to provide better service. For example, a front desk person working alone can send a robot for delivery and still man the desk.
The robot uses as much off-the-shelf technology as possible, including Willow Garage’s software and sensors that enable indoor navigation, which were far more expensive five years ago. The company also used 3D printers to make prototypes. With the cost of these emerging technologies coming down, Cousins expects more robots will emerge for service industries, such as hospitals, restaurants, and hotels. “All of that stuff is getting a lot cheaper, which makes it possible to do a smart startup,” he says.
The SaviOne’s core proprietary technology, though, is about indoor navigation. By loading up the robot with a map of the hotel, it’s smart enough to stop if there are obstacles in the way, such as people, and send notifications when it might be in a jam. For example, if it “sees” that it can’t squeeze through a hallway because a maid’s cart is there, it can contact a person in a call center who monitors the robot.
Indeed, the SaviOne exemplifies another trend in robotics: a cloud connection. To pick which floor it wants to go to, the robot sends a signal over the hotel’s Wi-Fi network to make a software call, via an application programming interface (API), to the elevator’s control system. That’s much cheaper than a robotic arm.
And if the robot does get stuck or breaks down, a service person can remotely control the robot and, for example, navigate it past a cart. “Artificial intelligence is a long way off but with simple artificial intelligence—the kind of planning and sensing that goes inside a robot—augmented with human intelligence, you can do a lot,” Cousins says.
So how do guests like the robots? The machines are designed for people to give them a rating on a touch screen after a delivery, after which the robot makes a cute whistle sound and does a little dance. So for hotels, employing a robot may be about more than saving money on labor. It might just be an attraction in its own right—at least while the novelty lasts.