All Systems Go: A Robotic Food Runner Rundown

With adaptable navigation, POS integration, self-charging capabilities and more, robotic food runners are gaining smarts and driving efficiencies.

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Robotic food runners add efficiency, with some units able to transport as much as 88 pounds at once. Features like lights above trays help highlight the food upon arrival at the designated table. Courtesy of Bear Robotics.

Robotic food runners are putting in the miles.

Smart, swift and strong, these foodservice helpers are deployed across the country in operations big and small. One U.S.-based manufacturer says its bots are in use in 44 states, from casino buffets and airport lounges to chain concepts and senior living facilities.

If you’re looking to hop on the bandwagon, here’s what you should know.

Easing the Burden

When it comes to tackling labor challenges, these customer-facing units hold their own. Restaurant-geared models can carry as much as 88 pounds (or roughly 16 dishes) at once. Most have battery lives longer than a server’s standard shift, with eight hours being the low end of the spectrum. “Our robots are sometimes running up to 200 or 300 times a day,” says one manufacturer. “They’re really bringing a lot of significant value, from an ROI perspective, in terms of being a convenient sidekick for the servers.”

Ottimo Matradee 112

Robotic food runners use various sensors to safely and efficiently navigate restaurants. Some models also can work in fleets. Courtesy of Richtech Robotics.

These multitalented workhorses can greet and escort guests, market events or specials, precisely and swiftly deliver food and drink, play audio (like “Happy Birthday”) and even transport dirty dishes to the back-of-house. The robots—often with three or four trays/shelves and controls atop the unit—are designed for ease of use, with some makers saying staff can operate them as easily as they could a tablet or a smartphone.

The Inner Workings

Robotic food runners measure and navigate their surroundings via various cameras/sensors, including 2D and 3D LiDAR, SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) and ToF (time-of-flight); some newer models rely on multiple sensors. “Our older ones only had a LiDAR, whereas our newer ones have SLAM sensors and LiDAR sensors,” says one maker. “One points at the ceiling just as a last failsafe to be able to get it back on track.” Several robots also can work in a fleet without crashing into one another, notes the maker. As a last resort, some units have emergency stop buttons.

Powering Through

On a full charge, some of the newest robots can last upward of 10 hours, while charging can take up to 4½ hours. One maker recommends charging its units at around 50%-60% “to maintain battery health without overcharging or draining them completely.”

You’ll want a designated standard outlet for charging. Robots should be tucked out of the way to avoid tampering and/or accidental tripping; some urge operators to ensure charging areas are dry, climate-controlled, and free of dust and debris. At least two makers already offer automatic charging, in which the robot senses it’s running low and docks itself, and another says it will introduce the feature later this year.

Fielding Candidates

Robots are not meant to replace human staff, but they can lighten the load, driving efficiencies and freeing staff of grunt work, makers clarify. Still, you’ll want to ensure your robot(s) can meet expectations just like anyone else on your floor. Some units have been put to the test; several have NSF certification, while another has UL 3300 certification.

Beyond those assurances, here are a few key points of consideration:

Lifestyle ServeBot Cafe

On select units, sensors detect when food is removed to automate movement. Courtesy of LG.

JOB RESPONSIBILITIES. One maker recently debuted POS integration on its robots, making their food runner more intuitive. “Normally a smartwatch or a tablet is how we’re sending out the robot, whereas when it’s in the POS, as soon as somebody orders the food to table four, there’s a robot being sent to the kitchen so it can go retrieve the food and bring it to table four,” they explain. Once out at the tables, features like verbal and/or written communication, emotive digital “faces” and lighting above the trays take presentation the last mile. And, on select models, sensors on the trays ensure robots don’t linger; once the food is offloaded, the robot is on the go. Robots meant for food running also can serve as bussing robots, with weight sensors working in the reverse—sending the robot to the back once the trays are at capacity. Some robots also have pre-bussing modes where they actively patrol the floor, rather than having to be manually sent to a designated table/area; makers say this is especially useful in buffet or lounge settings. Consider your labor shortcomings to determine where a robot makes the most sense. floors and doors. Robots can handle assorted surfaces, including transitions, carpet and tile, to varying extents. Look for stability claims (one model says it can handle ½-inch transitions), and size up other permanent obstacles at your operation(s). Bussing robots, for example, may need to navigate through multiple doorways. As such, a couple robotic companies offer add-on devices to automatically open doors. There are even robots designed to navigate elevators.

“It’s a very significant engineering feat to be able to take a pint of beer up and down a ramp.”

LIQUID COURAGE. If your draft list or soup du jour is among your points of pride, be sure the robot you’re eyeing is steady on its “feet.” Several makers tout their robots’ abilities to steadily transport soup, full drinks and other liquid goods. Some models with trays at the very top may be less stable, particularly on uneven surfaces, suggests one maker. Meanwhile, one four-shelf unit introduced in 2023 has independent suspension on six wheels for smooth deliveries. Another model takes stability to new heights with the ability to tackle an incline of up to seven degrees (yes, even with soup or drinks), whereas other units top out at five-degree inclines. “It’s a very significant engineering feat to be able to take a pint of beer up and down a ramp,” says the maker, crediting features like variable speed, plus a heftier unit weight (136 pounds) and wider base than prior models.

KettyBot Café de Coral Hongkong

Some robots’ screens can display custom text or ads. Courtesy of Pudu Robotics.

TRY OR BUY? Several manufacturers of robotic food runners offer lease or buy options, with varying coverage terms. Some makers have distribution partners and third-party maintenance teams, able to aid large national accounts, while others have their own robotics field engineers deployed across the country, particularly in big cities. Depending on the model, after-sales maintenance needs may include mapping changes (if a restaurant layout is changed), seasonal audio updates, software updates or the need for a new charger. One maker says its robots should be maintained every three months to ensure optimal performance. Look for partners and plans that best fit your locational and operational needs as well as your budget.

No Time Like the Present

This May’s National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago will showcase several robotic food runners. If you’re going, consider making time to see these units’ talents for yourself.


Quick Studies

Efficient and adaptable, robotic food runners are ready to get to work. Get up to speed on four models’ features and abilities.

 

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