Robot-maker Savioke announces partnership with major hotel chain

Don't tip the hotel delivery bot.

The Crown Plaza San Jose-Silicon Valley, which is run by the InterContinental Hotels Group, a leading hotel company, announced its newest employee last week. It's an automated delivery bot called Dash. Yup, robots are going to disrupt room service.

Approximately 3-feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, Dash is designed to travel at a human walking pace and can independently navigate between floors by calling the hotel elevator via Wi-Fi.

Dash is the latest version of maker Savioke's Relay delivery system. The robot features automatic docking, improved autonomy, and new design features that will enable Savioke to scale production in response to hoped-for demand. Savioke utilizes the open source Robotic Operating System, which points to the company's roots at Willow Garage, the famed robotics lab and incubator where ROS was developed (ROS is now maintained by the Open Source Robotics Foundation).

Here's how this works (and pay attention, you don't embarrass yourself in front of the robot): You order something via phone. A hotel employee walks over to dash, pops the latch on top of the device to reveal an inner bucket, and places your items inside. Instructions are given through a touchscreen interface, and then Dash heads for the elevator.

(It occurs to me that we're going to have to figure out some etiquette for riding in an elevator with a robot, but for now let's assume that'll work itself out.)

Dash gets off at its floor, heads to your room, and phones to announce its arrival. You take the items, and then Dash turns and goes on its merry way back to the docking station, where it awaits its next delivery. Simple.

Savioke made national news in 2014 when it turned its delivery system into a robot butler for The Aloft hotel in Cupertino. The big promise with partnering with InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), which manages a whopping 750,000 rooms around the world, including the 300 at the Crowne Plaza San Jose-Silicon Valley, is the potential to quickly scale the penetration of its delivery robots in the hospitality industry, which is currently a small niche, though one Savioke dominates. According to a joint press release by IHG and Savioke, testing at the Crowne Plaza will determine whether or not the system will be rolled out at other IHG properties.

That could be appealing for IGH. Like workers in the professional cleaning sector, many hotel workers fall into the low-wage and low-skill category. Turnover in the industry is high, which leads to increased costs associated with hiring, training, and managing employees. Since hospitality providers live and die by how employees interact with guests, replacing the lowest-tier workers with robots eliminates some risk and uncertainty, as well. If this all sounds inhumane, that's because it is on some level. But these are the terms operations people think in.

And, of course, there's the novelty factor. Robots are making steady inroads into our day-to-day lives, but getting a toothbrush from a polite robot still sounds pretty cool. For the time being, equipping a hotel with a robot butler or bell hop promises press coverage (quod erat demonstrandum) and significant word of mouth buzz, big selling points for Savioke.

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