(CNN) — Wandering the halls of Hong Kong’s Cyberport innovation center, the little rice robot is on a mission.
The stocky white cuboid resembles Star Wars’ R2D2 robot in build, but has the wide-eyed expression of Pixar’s WALL-E. He delivers drinks to HFT Life cafe customers in a compartment of his “head” which is unlocked by the customer using a PIN code sent to their phone.
Customers are given a PIN code, allowing them to open the hatch in Rice’s “head” to retrieve their drinks.
Describing Rice as “your friendly neighborhood robot,” Lee hopes he can help the hospitality industry tackle labor shortages as the population ages, while appealing to post-pandemic demand for reinforced hygiene protocols.
“Even after COVID, people are paying a lot of attention to contact,” says Lee. He believes that “this type of delivery robot will see steady growth over the next five to 10 years.”
Pandemic robotic boom
With a background in logistics, Lee founded Rice Robotics in 2019 to solve the challenge of “last mile delivery”.
Supported by the Cyberport incubation program, Lee and his team developed Rice, the first of his three robots. Designed for the delivery of goods, it can be used in the healthcare, retail, logistics and hospitality sectors.
The Dorsett Wanchai Hotel began using Rice robots in June 2021. “It’s a great way to serve our guests and maintain our service standards while adhering to social distancing and anti-pandemic measures,” says the general manager Anita Chan, adding that customer feedback has been positive, “With its cute appearance, Rice Robot is particularly popular with children.”
During the pandemic, the Dorsett Wanchai hotel in Hong Kong has set up a team of high-tech robots, including droids for cleaning and disinfection, and Rice for contactless room service.
Lee says that during the pandemic, customers started asking about cleaning robots. His team responded by developing a second robot, called Jasmine, in just eight weeks. Replacing Rice’s delivery compartment with a reservoir of disinfectant solution, Jasmine has two spray nozzles on her head to disperse the disinfectant.
Lee created a new persona for Jasmine – who has already been deployed in malls, conference centers and airports – by giving her cartoon eyebrows that criss-cross in a serious expression. “She has to go out and disinfect the whole place, and she doesn’t want anyone getting in her way,” Lee says.
The team’s third product, Portal, is a larger robot with a touchscreen, two-way intercom and streaming cameras for patrolling public spaces. In addition to making deliveries, Portal can guide visitors to places such as shopping malls, conference centers and hospitals.
While industrial robots are commonplace in the automotive, manufacturing, and electronics industries, until recently most service robots in hospitality were used for novelty purposes.
But the pandemic has changed that, says Kaye Chon, dean of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
In response to travel and social restrictions, “there has been an exodus of employees in our industry,” says Chon. Combined with concerns about hygiene and the growing acceptance of smart technologies by young guests, Chon sees robotics as the next step in the “digital transformation” of the hospitality industry.
However, the technology still needs to overcome some hurdles to achieve the same efficiency as industrial robots. Costs are still high for this technology — Rice Robotics’ products start at $9,000 apiece — and shopping malls, hotels and restaurants need to be adapted to be compatible with the robots, Chon says.
Staff also need to know how to program the robots, a skill set that is lacking in the industry. To remedy this, Chon has helped design a new “smart tourism” program covering AI, robotics and big data, but says it will take time for current students to enter the job market. “That’s how our industry evolves,” he adds.
Portal, Rice Robotics’ third product, is larger with a touchscreen, two-way intercom and streaming cameras for patrolling public spaces, like Captain C, pictured at the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Center.
Rice Robotics has created a fleet management application for users and helps customers make infrastructure changes, such as programming robots and elevator systems to communicate with each other. The startup also offers its robots on a monthly subscription service, starting at $800 per unit, which includes technical and onsite support.
And while robots can help minimize contact between people, they still need to be sanitized by staff between uses, Chon says.
Chon sees a big opportunity for robots to perform simple, repetitive tasks in budget and mid-range hotels – but the technology is still far from replicating the “little personal touches” that high-end luxury properties sell on. range, he adds.
Lee says robots like Rice can help reduce the cost of “last mile delivery” and increase efficiency.
Rice Robotics has grown rapidly during the pandemic, growing from a three-person team in 2019 to 26. Now based in Hong Kong’s Science and Technology Park, the company opened an office in Japan in 2021 to help manage his growing clientele there. With a rapidly aging population, Lee says robots are key to supporting Japan’s retail and hospitality sectors.
Beyond hospitality, Lee sees robots becoming more common in our homes as well. In a recent project with the Japanese Postal Service, several Rice units were deployed to a high-rise building to help deliver packages and mail to residents’ doorsteps.
“Robots aren’t taking people’s jobs, but rather trying to help move society forward,” Lee says, adding, “Robots are the future.”