Robots have been replacing humans on factory floors and even operation theatres for decades, and now they are coming for customer-facing jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The need to avoid human contact and labour shortage have given new urgency to the adoption of robots in hotels and restaurants.
With hotels now opening their doors after a crippling lockdown, operators are considering deploying robots to reduce human touch to remove fears of contracting covid-19.
Some of the leading five-star hotel chains in India, including the one run by ITC Ltd, are in talks with robotics companies to deploy humanoid robots to interact with customers, help them check-in and serve food in restaurants, two people familiar with the matter said. The Oberoi hotel chain is also exploring the use of robots and other technologies in some areas, they said, seeking anonymity.
The hotels are looking to deploy collaborative robots, also known as cobots, in their kitchens for cooking meals, the people aware of the issue said.
A spokesperson for ITC declined to comment, while an Oberoi spokesperson said the company is not deploying humanoid robots in the reception and restaurants but using artificial intelligence (AI) to automate some processes.
Most states have allowed hotels to reopen with limited capacities. As the industry slowly gets back on its feet, hotels are trying to reduce human contact wherever possible.
“This is not surprising as going for a touch-less system is the only way to retain customer-centricity. However, it may not be all-pervasive as every aspect cannot be replaced with robotics as it is, after all, hospitality business and there has to be some human connect. The focus should be on areas where contact with customers is higher and a hygiene factor is involved,” said Vijay Bhaskaran, partner, artificial intelligence and automation, EY.
Pradeep David, general manager, Universal Robots, said while humans cannot be completely substituted in the hotels business, the mundane and repetitive work can be handed over to a robot.
Firms offering these robots such as Milagrow and Universal Robots have seen an increase in enquiries for humanoid robots and cobots. Some robots being tested by hotels in restaurant areas can navigate through busy rooms and explain the menu to guests, take orders and deliver meals to designated tables. The robots being tested in reception can recognise faces and talk to guests.
Some of the cobots that Indian hotels have showed interest in are already being used overseas. These robots can cook and make coffee. Hotel staff can give them commands on what they want them to cook using a smartphone.
Many large hotel chains have already been using robots to clean air ducts, swimming pools, floors and windows.
But, deploying humanoid robots or cobots is expensive. Milagrow’s lineup of humanoid robots start at ₹4 lakh and go up to ₹12 lakh and cobots by Universal Robots cost ₹16-22 lakh.
“These robots are still not at a price point where they could be used in everyone’s kitchen. But with five-star hotels coming back to business, we are seeing a lot of interest in these technologies as people want automated kitchens and buffet breakfast lineups,” said David.
“We will have to customize robots to suit requirements of hotels. The robotic software has to be integrated into hotel customer relationship management systems,” said Rajeev Karwal, founder-chairman of Milagrow Humantech.