Meet the robot bartenders serving on smart ships

You'll find them on cruise ships, but are they destined to become the future bartenders at your local pub?
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer
ZDNet | Charlie Osborne
When in port, Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas is an impressive ship which claims to bring "smart" technology to the humble cruise.

Built for holidays within Europe and the US, the ship is the third largest currently in operation. Royal Caribbean dubbed the new flagship as a smart ship, and set to impress through a London-Eye pod which lifts passengers up in the air, smart luggage tracking and a smartphone app used to book restaurants and keep tabs on your bill.

The ship relies on a core intelligent and networked ship card system. Each passenger is issued with an RFID-enabled card which opens their cabins and can be used as ID when in port. The card can also be linked to credit cards when making purchases, such as room service, activities and drinks packages.

During software development, the beta and pilot stages are the times to discover and destroy kinks and bugs in the system. As a passenger of the ship's maiden voyage, I ecpected problems to occur -- and they certainly did. Software and system failures surfaced -- mainly relating to the use of the ship card system -- when both staff and smart system were faced with thousands of flesh-and-blood passengers expecting a high level of service and efficiency.

To many of the passengers, including myself, the system was not quite ready -- and was less smart and more of a source of frustration.

While the ship is able to cater for over 4,500 passengers, the maiden voyage did not cater for even half capacity. At check-in, the smart system -- comprising of card and a 'WOWband' which also acted as an RFID ID badge -- was besieged with problems, leading to heavy queues and residual account problems over the course of the holiday.

Royal Caribbean claims the smart system moves passengers from "sidewalk to ship in 10 minutes," but in my experience it took far, far longer. Despite tablet-touting employees, exuberant smiles and crisp uniforms, few members of staff appeared to be comfortable with the check-in system.

"Smart" the ship proclaims itself to be; perhaps once employees are better trained in the cruise ship's systems and software kinks are ironed out, the Anthem of the Seas will earn the right to the title. However, in the meantime, there is one area on the ship which provided innovative entertainment, novelty and a drink -- the ship's Bionic Bar.

Tucked away in a corner above shopping and a casino, the bar is spacious and decorated in a manner you could consider to be futuristic -- silvers, whites and metallic furnishings which bring to mind the simplistic design ethos of Apple. In the middle of the bar stands a curved white bar set with bottles and optics hanging from the ceiling. Two large robotic arms, curved in the same manner as human elbows, reach up from the center of the bar, waiting to be told what cocktail to create.

Speaking to ZDNet, an attendant for the bar said the entire construction, including the two drink-serving robots, required roughly $2.2 million to develop and build.

How does the Bionic Bar work? The first stage for a customer is to park themselves by one of the futuristic, sleekly silver tables. Tablet computers are affixed at select points, which operate based on your smart ship card. Once logged in through RFID technology -- although this sometimes took multiple attempts -- you are sent to a screen which allows you to select a predictably robot-themed predesigned cocktail or a traditional classic. Alternatively, you can make your own.

ZDNet | Charlie Osborne

This element was a lot of fun. A standard glass was split up through the program into parts, where you could add garnishes, ice, spirits, mixers and juice. As an example, in the video shown below, my test drink consisted of ice, vodka, orange and pineapple juice -- shaken, not stirred. The spirits are arranged upside-down in a grid system over the bar, whereas juice and mixers are found at the back.

The robots then select spirits, mixers or juice through an algorithm and product number assignments in a step-by-step process, chosen by the customer when they create their drink. Volume is set to keep every drink at the same level and to prevent too much liquid being poured into the glass.

It takes several minutes to create each drink, depending on how many times the customer wants a more time-intensive feature such as shaking or stirring. A plastic glass is placed in one of many curved holders set in a line across the bar, and if the glass is not in exactly the right position to receive its drink, the robot arm knocks it out of the way and replaces it with a new one. Once poured, the customer swipes their smart ship card for the glass to be propelled towards the front and their waiting hand.


While labor costs might be cut down by switching to robotics, the bar does need an attendant or two. The attendant in question walks the floor and supervises, making sure no programming errors or breakdowns occur -- calling in the developer cavalry in these cases -- and occasionally clambers across the serving station to pick up fallen plastic containers or helps customers in submitting their drink orders.

I asked whether the attendant enjoyed working in such a novelty bar, and the answer was enthusiastic. The attendant, twenty-something years of age, said not only did they no longer have to park themselves behind the bar all night, but instead they were able to spend time with guests. The first few days were difficult, the attendant said, but a common crowd began to form and eventually, "everyone teaches everyone how to use the machines," which lessens the burden on the single attendant to teach customers.

The bar was calm, there was no need for a five-deep crush around the bartenders and the robots were a novelty. While not as much fun as watching an experienced cocktail maker flip glasses and turn drink pouring into a performance, the robot's movements were quirky and fun to watch -- and acquiring your drink took less time than a traditional, lengthy cocktail creation complete with elbows in your ribs and a fight to get to the front. Yet, there is something missing -- the intuition, tasting and expertise of a good cocktail creator, and frankly, the drinks themselves lacked substance or class in both taste and appearance.

For a quick drink and a novel experience, however, these next-generation robots provide entertainment and flexibility, but it is not the same as fancy glasses, clever garnishes and perfectionism.

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