Definitely Doug 5/26/23: Meet Your Future Staff Members! (Part Two)

5.26.2023
by Doug Rice
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In my last column, I reviewed some key trends in autonomous mobile robotics for hotels, and dove into three categories of delivery robots in more detail – room delivery, food delivery, and heavy-lift robots. This week I will round out the topic with several other robot types and applications, as well as general guidance for evaluating, acquiring, and adopting mobile autonomous robotics. If you have not yet read part one, I recommend going back and doing so before continuing below, as some of the introductory material is important background to what follows.

One note: I have limited this topic to autonomous mobile robots. To be sure, there are also many stationary robots, the most common application for which in hospitality is food and beverage preparation – flipping burgers, making fries, or mixing drinks. This is a category unto itself; I will leave it for another day.

Security Robots

More and more hotels are discovering advantages to security robots. While they have multiple uses, the most common one is to patrol parking areas and garages to deter crime. This video clip from KGW-TV in Portland, Oregon shows how the Aloft Portland Airport at Cascade Station is using a security robot from Knightscope in its outside parking lot, and how it works. The unit is large, visible, and intimidating, can watch for specific license plates or human faces, and alerts the front desk whenever it detects something suspicious. The front desk can view what the robot sees and can talk to anyone nearby.

Other security robots, both from Knightscope and from Cobalt Robotics, are designed for indoor use. Smaller hotels may find these to be overkill; their needs can typically be met by less expensive stationary devices, including standard security cameras. But larger facilities, and especially those with significant meeting and conference space that may lie empty for long periods of time and that may require security patrols, may benefit.

Cobalt Robotics’ software can detect visual anomalies seen by robots or standard CCTV cameras, such as someone carrying a rifle, or several adults running in a location where that would not be expected. It can also use facial recognition to identify individuals on watch or banned lists, and alert hotel staff. Cobalt’s software can be used independently of its robots and will work with many existing surveillance systems, and it can trigger human or robotic responses. And because most security staff are not trained in how to work with digital surveillance or robots, Cobalt also provides human security contract staff, who can work cooperatively with the robots.

The robots I saw offer about 50%-60% cost savings vs. human security guards in typical usage, although this can vary significantly depending on various operational factors. In addition to favorable costs, they can work long hours, never complain, and do not get sick. They can navigate ramps (but not stairs or elevators) and hotels can program them to patrol randomly, to traverse specified routes, or to watch specific areas at scheduled times. Branding, entertainment, and messaging functions can be incorporated to make the robot a useful marketing tool. Interactions with people can be friendly or threatening based on the need.

Security robots should have long battery life and short charging times and should be able to detect the need to charge and navigate unassisted to the charging station. They should be able to remain on patrol while charging, which means hotels will want to locate the charging station somewhere where the robot can keep a watchful eye while charging (but that is still protected from weather-related impediments like snow or deep puddles).

Telepresence Robots

Ava Robotics specializes in telepresence robots; Temi’s robots, while more generic, include many of the same capabilities, and several robots with other primary functions also support more limited telepresence functions. These might allow a guest in the lobby to speak with hotel staff for information or assistance, for example.

While many telepresence applications are embedded within other robot applications, the Ava solution has a unique form factor that has some specific potential uses in hospitality. This is best explained by this short video. A remote user can control the robot, see what it sees, and hear what it hears from a phone or other screen. The robot is human-sized, can “sit” or “stand,” and features the remote participant’s face on a large screen at the normal height of a person. As such, the remote individual can walk into a room, join a meeting, follow a tour guide, or even deliver a remote presentation to a live audience. Hotel applications include virtual tours for meeting planners, as well as the ability to offer rental units for conferences so that people unable to attend in person can join remotely.

Guide Robots

Guide robots often function as a mobile kiosk or digital concierge. They can do most things other robots can do, but then when required, can guide the user to a particular place. A touch screen (or even two) allows guests to make requests, which may be simple concierge-type requests or a more structured process like check-in. Some guide robots are equipped with voice recognition and response, video chat with a “live” concierge, security capabilities, and advertising and product sampling options. The video on this web page, from the Royal Plaza Hotel in Hong Kong (in Chinese, subtitled in English), shows a Temi robot performing a guest check-in while deployed in the hotel lobby.

Guide robots may park themselves in a fixed location in the hotel lobby, or may be programmed to mingle with guests, for example passing out water if there is a long line waiting at reception.

When connected via telepresence to a call center, the operator can not only assist the guest, but can control the robot, for example to lead the guest to a restaurant they just suggested. Restaurant host stations can use them to lead guests to their assigned table, to provide menus, and to inform the diners that their server will be with them shortly. Obviously, this use case might not be appropriate in most fine dining restaurants. It could, however, be very helpful at a large breakfast buffet with tables assigned to specific staff.

The capabilities of the guide robots I saw varied, and some were more attuned to certain applications than others. The return on investment (ROI) will depend on the applications for which they are deployed, but I would expect them to be generally greater in hotels where retail or food and beverage outlets may be numerous and hard to locate, or where the robot is acquired for one primary purpose but converted to a guide robot when it is not otherwise busy. They can also be used to interact with people to help draw them into outlets.

Products to look at in this category include Keenon’s Guiderbot, Techmetics’ Techi Concierge, LG’s CLOi Guidebot, and several options from Temi. Many robots designed for other purposes incorporate guide robot capabilities as well, for example, Bear Robotics’ Servi robot, primarily used for food delivery, can also be put in “hostess mode” to guide restaurant guests to their seats.

Follow-Me Robots

Some robots can follow a person or another robot, or even a convoy of robots. This can be useful for moving larger loads of materials, especially to locations that may be temporary. For example, kitchen staff could lead a convoy of food-carrying robots from the kitchen to a distant meeting room where a buffet line is being set up. Or if a cleanup of trash or dirty dishes is needed, a staff member could lead one or more robots to the area, load up the items to be removed, and send them off to the trash room or dishwashing area.

Robots from Temi can follow a person if instructed on-screen or remotely. Another recent entrant into the industry is Piaggio Fast Forward. Its Gita robot was designed for the consumer market to transport loads of up to about 50 pounds (23 kg) within a neighborhood. These are smaller and less expensive than most of the other robots I have covered, just a few thousand dollars depending on size. And while there are already some applications in business markets (such as this one featured in a DFW Airport video), the company is looking to adapt the product to other markets including hospitality, potentially with bigger payloads. As of early May, Piaggio Fast Forward was also the only robotics company planning to exhibit at HITEC in Toronto next month.

Mingling Robots

Several robots described above and in Part One of this article are also able to enter what several vendors call “mingle mode.” In this configuration, they seek out people and may offer them services, food, beverages, or entertainment. They can be used to pass drinks or canapes at cocktail receptions, ice cream and soda at kids’ activities, or as linebusters in the lobby. Some can perform remote check-in or provide concierge services, either autonomously or via telepresence with an operator in a call center. Entertainment options may include activities to keep children engaged, such as games, telling jokes, or even just letting a child lead the robot around the lobby. Robots can be a big hit with children, and many robots that are acquired for other purposes are often reassigned to lobby duty when there are kids needing to be entertained.

Bear Robotics, Pudu Robotics, and Relay Robotics all have robots that can be put into mingle mode, and others may also support similar use cases.

Floor Cleaning Robots

Robots are increasingly used to clean floors. While vacuuming is the most common application in hotels, some robotic floor scrubbers are also usable on hard-surface floors. Robots from Pudu Robotics, Richtech Robotics, Softbank Robotics, Tailos, and Keenon (the latter will be entering the U.S. market later this year) are purpose-built for floor cleaning. Another company, Brain Corp., provides the autonomous navigation features to “robotize” existing (non-robotic) floor-cleaning equipment from multiple companies. This video depicts a robot from Softbank Robotics that is powered by Brain Corp. autonomous navigation. Avalon SteriTech also offers a floor-cleaning robot (manufactured by Softbank Robotics) that is combined with its own disinfecting robot (discussed below).

The robot’s form factor will determine whether it can be used in public spaces, guest rooms, or both.  Most of the products on the market are 18-24 inches (46 to 61 mm) tall, which works well in public areas. Tailos’ robot has a short form factor (click and scroll down for picture) that enables it to clean under beds and other low furniture in guest rooms. Readers familiar with the household Roomba vacuum will recognize the concept, although Tailos units are designed for commercial applications: they are larger and rectangular, are designed for all-day use, and achieve better cleaning results especially for edges and corners. Swappable batteries also enable longer usage cycles.

Some cleaning robots must be manually trained by a human on the first run; they can then repeat the same route in the future unassisted. Others are simply set loose in an enclosed area and navigate a path that cleans everywhere. Tailos’ robots can be combined to do this cooperatively, communicating with each other to avoid redundant coverage. Most cleaning robots can report on where they have cleaned and when; some can also track edge cleanliness, mold, and air quality.

Return on investment for cleaning robots is fairly easy to calculate for public spaces; once any necessary “training runs” have been completed, you can estimate the labor time savings based on the time required for a full manual cleaning vs. the time to move the robot to the area to be cleaned and press the “start” button. Electricity savings can also be substantial with some models.

The ROI for guest rooms is a bit trickier. Most hotels that use guest room robotic vacuums assign one per housekeeper, who sets it running while performing other cleaning tasks in the room. Tailos reports typical savings of four to five minutes per room, or about a 20% to 25% increase in efficiency. This can enable housekeepers to clean more rooms per shift, but the utilization of each robot is limited because it remains idle for part of the time. There is some anecdotal evidence that robots reduce the physical effort that must be expended by housekeepers using manual vacuums and may reduce physical strain and repetitive stress injuries, but there is not enough data yet to confirm this.

Guest room vacuuming robots typically cost a few hundred dollars per month on a “Robot as a Service” basis. Public space robots typically include costs for the non-robotized vacuuming component, plus a few hundred dollars per month for the autonomous navigation. This can be compared to the cost of one housekeeping staff of nearly $3,000 per month (if a hotel can even find them), so it does not require a large percentage labor savings to get a financial return. Another part of the ROI equation is cleanliness; some hotels have reported that it is much easier to maintain their desired level of cleanliness when they do not have to depend as much on staff.

Window and Façade Cleaning Robots

A relatively new category is robots that can clean the exterior windows and facades of tall buildings. For most of history, such tasks have been handled by workers dangling from ropes or standing in large gondolas (called Building Maintenance Units or BMUs).

Kite Robotics, which is fully deployed in Europe and is in the early stages of launching into the U.S. and Middle East, has the only product I am aware of that uses robots to replace the dangerous and time-consuming aspects of exterior cleaning. As before, a video is the best way to get a sense of how it works.

The units require much less roof space than BMUs, typically with three pivoting fixtures on each side that hold control cables and power/water feed lines. The units are attached by four cables on opposite sides at the top and bottom; they are computer-controlled to climb the building while a rolling brush cleans the windows and other façade elements. Custom modifications enable the unit to deal with most vertical and horizontal elements of a façade that might prevent a straight run.

A two-person crew manages each cleaning cycle by attaching the cables at the top and bottom and to the robot on the ground. After one side of the building has been cleaned, they disconnect it and move it to the next side. The typical robot unit weighs around 50 pounds (24 kilograms), although this can vary with customizations.

The system replaces, and is priced similarly to, BMUs, which are typically well into six figures USD or Euro. Because they work much faster than manual window washers on ropes or in gondolas, however, the company estimates labor savings of at least 80%, and similar savings for water and energy. Tap water is purified as part of the system prior to use, which prevents spotting from dried mineral buildup on windows.

Because of the cost, Kite Robotics suggests that their solution is suitable only for buildings taller than about 80 feet (25 meters). The robots and cabling can be customized to deal with many but not all façade designs. In addition to financial benefits, the robots change window-cleaning from a dangerous job to one with minimal risks, enabling hotels to do window cleaning on a much more frequent basis while still spending less.

Disinfecting Robots

Several vendors, including Avalon SteriTech, LG, Pudu Robotics, Richtech Robotics, and Techmetics, offer disinfecting robots (Avalon SteriTech’s Whiz Gambit is also a floor cleaning robot). Some robots use UV-C light as the principal method of killing germs; others instead distribute disinfection solutions by dry or wet mist. These were very popular during the early days of the pandemic and have persisted post-pandemic in some parts of the world.

Regulatory compliance issues for disinfecting robots need to be investigated and considered; various jurisdictions (notably in the U.S.) restrict the use of UV-C and certain toxic chemicals, and there is no global standard for safe use. LG’s UV-C robot is shown on its U.S. website but the fine print states that it is only in pilot and not authorized for sale absent regulatory approval.

Other key considerations include whether the robot can operate safely in the presence of humans; the toxicity of any disinfecting solutions; whether the robot disinfects by line of sight or can reach areas outside its field of vision; how soon the space can be used following disinfection; how long the disinfection lasts; what alternative disinfecting solutions can be used (if necessary for current or future regulatory compliance); and whether and how the robot measures air quality as it works.

General Purchasing Guidelines

Autonomous mobile robots are both very capable and potentially quite dangerous. While designed to avoid people and obstacles, there is a great deal of software and hardware that needs to work together to ensure both effectiveness and safety. I recommend putting robots through several tests (ideally onsite) and taking videos of key characteristics that can be compared in detail after the fact. Areas to check include:

  • Robots should avoid stairs, as well as locations and terrains where they are not designed to function. They should be able to navigate wherever they need to go, which may mean dealing with ramps, thresholds, through closed doors, and up and down elevators.

  • Understand the technology the robot uses to navigate. Many robots can dynamically map a space to determine where they can go and adjust to changes over time. Others may require a preprogrammed map, or the installation of navigation aids (such as coded stickers or under-carpet tracks) that may create aesthetic issues (especially in public areas) or increase installation costs. A key question is what is involved if the hotel needs to change the navigation area: can the robot learn it itself, must it be programmed by hotel staff, or does it need vendor support?

  • Ability to stop quickly enough if a human or animal suddenly appears in the robot’s path – have someone run in front of the robot quickly from a location that is out of the robot’s camera range, such as around a corner, and record how quickly it stops or swerves to avoid them.

  • Robots should get stuck only if the environment changes (e.g., someone moves furniture while they are working), making it impossible for them to backtrack.

  • Robots that will interact with humans (especially guests) need to communicate effectively, whether via screen, voice, or remote control. This may be as simple as a recorded “excuse me” message to play when a human is blocking the robot’s only route.

  • Robots that encounter navigation or maintenance issues should be able to alert the appropriate hotel staff quickly and effectively.

  • Elevator integration can be very complex, and many local elevator service companies are not trained to support robots. If elevator navigation is required, look for a vendor that will provide a complete solution, including any necessary modifications to your elevator system and any required negotiations with your existing service company, as well as necessary permitting. Evaluate whether the required communications infrastructure is supported adequately within the elevators (Wi-Fi may not be reliable). Robots should also be able to detect a crowded elevator car and wait.

  • If robots need to pass through closed doors, then the doors may need to be upgraded for mechanical openers (often a requirement for accessibility anyway) and the robots integrated with the door controls. This is much simpler than with elevators but can still add costs.

  • If the robots are likely to encounter furniture, ensure that they can either totally avoid it, or that they are equipped with bumpers that can minimize damage.

  • Consider the branding and personality of any robots that will be visible to, or used by, guests. Most vendors can customize these to a significant degree.

  • For robots with interactive screens, evaluate the tools and processes for customizing them. Some vendors provide the ability for hotels to customize on their own, others rely on distributors or integrators, and some provide customization as a service (which may or may not entail additional cost).

  • Like any complex machinery, robots require maintenance. Make sure you are comfortable with the provider’s service arrangements. Some vendors provide their own support and will quickly swap out robots that cannot be fixed remotely; others use distributors or third-party support organizations that may have less expertise or slower access to parts. Explore the costs and speed of any needed repairs carefully.

Operational Considerations

Robots can be very effective at certain tasks, but many of the companies I spoke with emphasized the need for hotels to evaluate them thoughtfully, to be willing to modify operational practices, and most importantly to involve staff from the outset. Employees will likely have concerns that robots may replace their jobs. Early involvement in the process can help them come around to the view that the robots can be very effective assistants, and can compensate (up to a point) for staff that cannot be found in tight labor markets. Robots can also take over some repetitive, boring aspects of manual jobs, making the jobs more attractive.

Several vendors emphasized the importance of both top-down buy-in and bottom-up participation in the evaluation and adoption of robots. Robots are most effective when they can be blended comfortably into workflows and operational practice, but this can require trial and error as well as process change. Some vendors offer a free or money-back trial period, which can be used by hotel management to make it clear that while it thinks robots might be helpful, the staff can have the last word as to whether a trial was successful and the robots should be converted to permanent “staff.”

Two of the robot companies reported that their biggest issues came not with hotel staff (at least, not if the robots were properly introduced and socialized) but with contractors – specifically contract cleaners and contract security guards who can be replaced in part, but not entirely, by robots. Contract companies saw the robots as threatening, and often refused to work with them. These two companies both formed service companies that provide the same services but using their robots. If your hotel uses contractors that might need to work with robots, you will need to determine whether your current contractors can adapt, whether you need to evaluate others, or whether it is simply a bridge too far.

Conclusion

While the hotel industry is still in the early phases of the adoption curve for autonomous mobile robots, it is starting to get much steeper. We can anticipate a lot of innovation, experimentation, improvement, and even cost reduction in coming years as the market matures. But there are few hotels today that would not benefit from one or two of the robotic solutions I have described, and some might find half a dozen or more that make sense.

The labor shortage does not seem likely to go away anytime soon. Look at robots to help make the staff you have more efficient, to remove some of the tasks that no one likes, and to fill the gaps for the staff you cannot hire. The economics can be compelling in many use cases. But always do the ROI calculation yourself, because it depends on your physical setup, your staff culture and capabilities, and on how you plan to operationalize each robot.

Douglas Rice
Email: douglas.rice@hosptech.net
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ricedouglas

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