Picture being led to your table at a restaurant by a talking ‘cat’ robot, which can serve your meals and collect your dirty dishes. It’s no longer the work of futuristic science fiction as Newcastle-based tech company Spark plans to shake-up the hospitality game.
Venture into a branch of YO! Sushi and you might find ‘BellaBot’, the cat-faced robot roaming around the restaurant floor or buffet chain COSMO, where you might even be treated to a happy birthday sing-a-long from one of the two robots they’ve signed up for.
”The aim is to reduce certain labour costs. Let the robots do repetitive jobs that humans don’t really enjoy doing,” Eric Guo, founder and CEO at Spark, told Prolific North.
Spark, which launched in 2019, initially started out by developing an integrated cloud-based software platform to support the leisure and hospitality sector with operations, encompassing Electronic Point of Sale (EPoS), reservation management and stock control.
As Covid hit the hospitality industry hard, the tech company decided to expand its offering to robotics last year by partnering with Chinese company Pudu Robotics, becoming its official distributor.
“The problem we’re looking at is hospitality and shops are still combating a shortage of staff,” he explained. “The robotics and the smart hospitality platform, together will bring extra value to the UK market.”
He hopes Spark’s hospitality solutions will help the sector to improve efficiency, drive down costs and tackle the rising number of staff shortages across the industry.
“We’re moving to the Internet of Things (IoT) solution for smart hospitality and with recent years, technology is ready. We’ll be able to introduce robotics as an extension of the service.”
Besides the novelty factor of the robot waiters, will this seemingly seamless automation lead to robots taking over from existing staff and ultimately lead to staff cuts?
“The aim is not to replace a human completely. We are not replaceable in many ways,” he emphasised. “We help hospitality with the harsh challenge of staff shortage.”
The digital transformation in hospitality accelerated by Covid
Influenced by the success of his family in business which was rooted in the mining industry in China, he saw a different entrepreneurial route through technology.
“I’ve seen the future of business is more in Internet of Things (IoT). We’ve seen different waves of innovation in our generation with cloud computing, now IoT, cryptocurrency. I think there are a lot of opportunities in this field.”
Eric Guo, founder and CEO at Spark.
After studying International Business and Management at Northumbria University, it fuelled his passion for tech with a desire to build a scalable business.
“My eyes locked into tech, especially hospitality tech. I was born in China and over the years when I got the time to visit, the hospitality scene there has completely changed.”
Inspired by how China embraces autonomous robots in hospitality, he saw the potential it could have in the UK as digital transformation began to emerge during Covid.
“Covid accelerated how people adapt technology in hospitality in the UK,” he explained. “It significantly accelerated the application of QR code ordering.
“Towards the end of the Covid you were only allowed dining outdoor space, maximum rule of six people and things like that. We were thinking, ‘how can we reduce human contact’ and there is a robotic solution already happening in China.”
Based at offices in the heart of Newcastle, the team at Spark has now grown to 17 staff including a team of developers but it wasn’t without its challenges.
The hospitality sector was practically decimated overnight as bars and restaurants shut up shop with the on/off lockdown imposed restrictions.
“A lot of hospitality staff saw uncertainty in the industry and a lot of people decided to pivot their career,” he explained. “The staff shortage, I think that that’s an on-going issue caused by the pandemic and I believe some of that is caused by Brexit.
“During that period, we could have easily packed our bags and been like ‘let’s leave it, the pandemic has made a huge negative impact on this industry’ but we decided to stay.”
Initially starting out with a range of hospitality solutions including point of sale (POS) products and self-serve kiosks pre-Covid, it was almost an opportunistic idea to branch out with robotics to navigate the challenges faced by the hospitality industry.
The robotics family at Spark.
From singing happy birthday to serving meals – how the robots work
“They can have a bigger load capacity, do multi-table planning, deliver different food on one trip as a human can only handle it on multiple trips. Then the idea came to introduce the robotic solution to the UK and how it can be integrated with our own software.”
Keen to show me the robots work, I was introduced to ‘KettyBot’, another in the wide range of robots offered by Spark, which has a dystopian-esque cyclops eye. It ‘wakes up’ when customers approach it, can escort them to their seats, takes orders and is equipped with a customisable front display for promotional ads and menus.
“We’ve developed a purpose-built software to bring in that frontline of both human and the robotics interactive solution for the front of the business. It has become a very clear novelty in the UK hospitality scene.”
Viral videos of the robots have been posted on social media by bemused customers, which he believes is an additional marketing tool for the industry to drive customers through the doors.
But how do the robots actually work? In simple terms, he explained the robots are equipped with two technologies used in robotics which includes RGB-D 3D sensors as the “eyes” and LiDAR, which uses laser light to map out an area.
“We are the frontman of introducing the product to the market – mapping, training and supplying the service.”
It all starts with a visit to a restaurant or venue to begin mapping out the layout for the robot.
“We will usually survey the site to get an understanding of how they want the bot to run, the bot can have a dish collecting function and voice commands as well as celebrating special occasions. It can sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song to you,” he explained.
After a business decides what they want the bot to do, whether it be dishing out sushi bowls to greeting customers, the team of engineers begin programming the robot.
“The programming usually takes about half a day and we’ll get our engineer on the site.”
After a business confirms a number of factors such as what voice the robot should have, the team shifts focus towards training staff and customers on how to use and interact with it.
“It may sound a little bit complicated but usually our training for a beginner level to operate on the bots, it’s literally two to five minutes. That’s how quick it can be.”
Will robots replace humans and what else could they be used for?
The possibilities seem endless with Spark’s vast repertoire of robotic solutions and Guo already has plans to launch a new product towards the end of September.
“We are going to introduce a ‘ButlerBot’ that can actually integrate with a lift,” he explained.
The new ButlerBot
He sees the robots being used in hotels as they have the ability to navigate busy environments, offer room service and transport items between floors – taking on the role of concierge.
Although hospitality is the main focus for Spark, Guo gushed about how he sees the future of the robots and where they could potentially branch out to help other areas in society too.
From being used to support staff in care homes by delivering items to residents and even taking on the role of a receptionist by delivering post in a busy office block, he believes robots can start taking on the more mundane tasks in day-to-day life.
“We’re looking for potential supermarkets to trial out with us,” he explained, for his vision with Butler Bot. The robots could help to answer queries, navigate customers to aisles or promote new products to reduce staff being “disrupted”.
But he is keen to point out that the robots are only to help a business with efficiency and to enable staff to focus more on customer service, not to replace hard-working staff altogether.
“Robotics are only an extension of your service, it can give that novelty to business, into doing the boring, repetitive work that humans don’t want to do. In terms of voice interaction, having a chat with your customers, the bot is nowhere near that AI level to do that.”
“I think robots at this stage would never replace a human, I don’t see that happening in the near future anyway,” he teased. “So we’re very safe!”