Robots Could Redefine Hotel Room Service

Fast and friendly delivery bots can bring items to guests in minutes

18 May 2015

Room service is one of the many luxuries of staying at a hotel—whether it’s having breakfast, fresh towels, or the daily newspaper delivered to your door. But not all guests want to wait for up to an hour or let hotel staffers inside their rooms. That’s where service bots come in.

Service robot prototypes were put to work at two Aloft hotels in California’s San Francisco Bay Area: the first in August 2014 and the second this past March. Designed by Savioke, a Santa Clara, Calif., manufacturer of autonomous robots for the service industry, the SaviOne prototype was developed 19 months ago by IEEE Member Steve Cousins. He and fellow alumni from Willow Garage—creators of the autonomous PR2 robot, an R&D platform that can be programmed to help humans with household tasks—decided it was time to develop bots that could interact with the public.

“We designed SaviOne to be a useful tool for hotel staff and increase their productivity without it alienating guests,” says Cousins. “To our surprise, guests found the bot delightful. In fact, people have said they’re glad it was a robot and not a person at the door.”

The bots are also designed to be polite as well as safe in an environment where people are constantly walking.

DESIGN DECISIONS

The team spent just five months building SaviOne’s hardware, software, and body elements before trying it out in the hotels, according to Cousins.

The developers made the prototype by hand using a wooden frame and 3-D printed plastics for its body. At less than a meter in height and weighing almost 45 kilos, it rolls around on four wheels. It has a compartment large enough to hold standard hotel delivery items like snacks, bottles of water, and towels. Hotel staffers load it up and then punch in a room number on a touch screen to send the bot on its way.

To appear friendly rather than intimidating, a bow tie below its touch screen gives it the look of an old-fashioned butler, and an outline around the screen makes it appear as if it’s smiling. Unlike bots for factories that are fast and strong, which could be dangerous for consumer applications, Cousins keeps his bot moving at a low speed so as not to hurt children if it runs into them. He even ran the bots into crash-test dummies to determine a safe speed. While the average human walking speed is around 5 kilometers per hour, SaviOne travels at about half that speed.

To navigate its surroundings, the bot is programmed with a map of the hotel. It also uses 3-D vision sensors that help it determine how far it is from walls, where there is an indentation signifying a closed door, and when people or things are in its way. If anything is higher than a centimeter, it is programmed to go around it, not over it, Cousins explains.

“SaviOne has a mental map of its surroundings similar to what a blind person might have,” he says. “It’s using all kinds of cues along the way to keep track of exactly where it is.”

The system is also programmed to make a set number of wheel rotations to travel from one hotel room door to the next. To help it navigate from one floor to another, Savioke installed a network interface in the hotel elevators so the bot can call an elevator wirelessly. The elevator then goes to the floor where the bot must deliver its goods.

Before its first day on the job, each robot was tested to make sure it would move to the correct door. Cousins says he has yet to see the robots go to the wrong room. (If one does, it’s probably going to be because a hotel staffer has punched in the wrong number, he says.)

ROOM SERVICE

To get something delivered, guests dial for room service, and staff members simply place items in the compartment found at the very top of the bot, close the lid, and enter the room number on the screen. The robot takes care of the rest.

Once SaviOne arrives at the room, it wirelessly calls the room phone via Wi-Fi and tells the guest in a recorded message to open the door. The bot only unlocks and automatically opens its lid once it senses the room door is open. This prevents other guests from taking its items.

SaviOne also practices “elevator etiquette,” meaning it doesn’t block people who want to enter the elevator or stand in front of the button panel. Once inside, it will always turn to face the door. When it reaches its floor, SaviOne beeps and whistles, displaying a sign on its screen that reads: “I’m getting off now. Please excuse me.” If its sensors tell it an elevator is crowded, the bot will wait for the next one.

Based on lessons learned from the two installed bots, the company has recently released Relay, a commercial version to be leased to hotels. It is easier to manufacture because it uses sheet metal frames covered with thermal plastic skins instead of 3-D printed plastic panels, and it has a more robust software system. Cousins says it is already available to hotels. It will eventually be marketed to other service industries as well, including elder care homes, hospitals, and restaurants.

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