I,Robot, at your service

10 January 2018

It is still probably a while away from the time when a robot housekeeper will come to clean up your hotel room and make up the bed. However, friendly little robot butlers delivering the bottle of water or extra towel that you requested from room service is a reality today in Singapore.


In an effort to make the hotel industry “smarter” and to counter the effects of labour shortage, smart solutions that use mobile connectivity and automation through robotics are some areas being looked into through the Smart Hotel Technology Roadmap - led by Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and the Singapore Hotel Association's (SHA) Hotel Innovation Committee.


The roadmap seeks to inform the industry what a “smart hotel” is about, regardless of the size of the property. It takes into account that today’s younger generation travellers are more technology savvy and are mostly smartphones users. Many of the applications being developed for hotels use mobile connectivity to deliver service.


For hotels a “human touch” in their engagement with guests is important. In such a situation, the ability to automate routine “dead time” work spent fetching and delivering items (like bottled water) from point A to point B, improves productivity by reducing the number of workers required for these tedious but necessary functions. Smart delivery robots can fill the gap, giving staff more time to provide better guest services.


As Singapore’s leading info-communications service provider to the hospitality industry, StarHub is partnering with hotels, robot manufacturers, service delivery companies and various tertiary institutions, to offer robots-as-a-service solutions. This is part of the telco’s connected buildings initiative under its IoT (Internet of Things) suite of services. The IoT services also focus on a number of other areas, including connected vehicles and connected living.




StarHub has recently worked with ST Kinetics to introduce the Aethon-designed TUG robots, used to transport laundry, in three hotels from this year  - Capri by Frasers Changi City, Singapore, Four Points by Sheraton Singapore, Riverview and Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel Singapore. Discussions are ongoing with another 17 hotels. The TUG robot is central to a revolutionary project to reengineer the back-of-house laundry process, that integrates different technologies like RFID, robotics, smart tagging/ID carts into an end-to-end solution. The TUG robot takes over  menial tasks such as transporting and heavy lifting of huge laundry carts across RIFD scanning stations to automatically count the different quantities of linen items like towels, pillow cases etc, and deliver these pre-packed carts to every guest room floor for the housekeeping room attendant to simply take over the carts and immediately go about making up guest rooms.


There will no longer be the need to have human staff at the hotel central housekeeping pantry sorting and counting individual linen items needed for the day for each guest room floor, packing them into the housekeeping trolleys, then pushing loaded trolleys into the service lifts to go to the guest floors before any room making can even begin. Initial estimates suggest cost savings of a minimum of 10% or more to an equivalent of the amount of work of at least 3 full-time employees, can be realised in the short term. What is important to remember is that the service industries like the hotel sector continue to experience labour shortage. So the introduction of robotics does not actually mean that existing staff would be made redundant. Rather, it would give hotels the freedom to reallocate, or retrain staff for more value-added roles that enhance the guest experience.


At the end of the day, our stay at a particular hotel is made different with that “last mile” human touch or what we commonly call “customer service”. Having room service  items delivered to guests in their rooms are simple hygiene factors, what most guests almost take for granted. It has to be there, and it has to be delivered in an expected time after the request is made. But the absence of room service delivery, or delayed or unfulfilled deliveries will result in a negative experience many guests will refuse to accept, making complaints or worse writing negative reviews on social media or travels sites. This is a risk most decent hotels will not want to take.


In late 2016, StarHub worked with the Hotel Productivity Centre (HPC), part of the Singapore Productivity Centre (SPC), and Republic Polytechnic (RP) to introduce Savioke Relay, a front-of-house robot.  Deployed as an autonomous service delivery robot, this first in Singapore implementation allows hotel’s room service staff to load the robot with guest requests like bottled water, towels, toiletries, amenities and packed meals and instruct it to deliver the items to the correct room by keying in the details into the robot’s interface. Programmed in a “set and forget” mode, the robot returns to the docking station after delivery on its own. Relay has a friendly “personality” with a LCD screen which allows guests to interact with it, and also serves to inform passers-by of what it’s doing, like it’s “on a delivery run” or “returning home”.


The telco is working with the Republic Polytechnic on other innovative projects that involve integrating robotic platforms with other systems used in hotels with the end objective of enhancing service quality, through the use of automation and IoT. Robotics is just one of the many avenues StarHub has successfully partnered industry agencies and hospitality schools to drive technology adoption that leads to real tangible productivity gains. StarHub is also looking at analytics solutions and services that utilise artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities.


Advanced robots


Robots like Relays and TUGs are autonomous mobile robots, or AMRs. These are more advanced than the earlier generation AGVs (autonomous guided vehicles) used mainly in factory shop floor environments. To understand the difference between AMRs and the earlier generation AGVs it is useful to think about the difference between a train and an automobile. Just as a train can move only in a fixed direction or route, determined by the how the tracks have been laid, AGVs can only move in a direction determined by how wires and magnets have been embedded into the floor or the path calibrated using special tags placed on the walls. AMRs, on the other hand, like automobiles, can move in any direction based on the information it receives from the operator.


AMRs thus can navigate around people and objects in real time in order to complete their tasks. The array of sensors used on the Relay, together with its proprietary navigation algorithm, makes it a class above similar robots. Aethon, too, has incorporated their own proprietary logic on their TUGs which also have many different sensors to deliver advanced navigation capabilities that are just as good as Savioke’s Relay. For the hotel industry, the real game changer is that the robots can autonomously take the elevator, and share the lift with people. Both Relay and TUG have the capacity to wirelessly trigger the correct floor button on the elevator to arrive at their destination.These advanced robots do not need dedicated lifts to move from floor to floor.


Satisfaction study


A study undertaken by Republic Polytechnic has shown that the majority of the hotel’s staff feel that the relay robot has helped to reduce workload. It also attracts positive feedback and attention from guests. The study also noted that the relay robot has become a unique selling point (USP) for its use of digital transformation with some guests checking into the hotel so as to experience how it feels to have a “robot butler”. The chatter on hotel review sites has also been very positive about the robot service. The Republic Polytechnic study further noted that besides current functions, there was potential for Relay to perform additional tasks that would help in increasing guest satisfaction and revenue generation.


While it is still at the early stage for adoption of collaborative robots in hotel frontline operations environment, newer and better advancements in different technologies will continue to push the envelope of where robotics can be applied to and be used. The use of next generation technologies like robots, facial recognition at check-in, payment wallets and others will help hotels to transform into “smart hotels” as envisaged by the Smart Hotel Technology Roadmap.


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