Silicon Valley hotel to test robot butler

Robot can bring snacks and the morning paper to any of the hotel’s 150 rooms in minutes

Think of it as the Terminator’s human-friendly sibling.

In a hotel lobby across the street from Apple’s corporate campus in Cupertino California, a desk clerk places a razor in the bin of a 3-foot-high robot and taps in a room number on a display. The robot, “Botlr,” chirps an acknowledgment and rolls off to an elevator and its final destination.

On August 20th, the Aloft hotel in Cupertino will begin testing this robotic bellhop, a wheeled service vehicle designed to shuttle items from the hotel lobby desk to guest rooms. Whether a gimmick or a sign of things to come, Botlr is the latest among a new generation of robots - like Google’s self-driving car and Caddytrek’s electric golf caddy - that are starting to walk or roll around the everyday world.

Aloft Hotels and Savioke (pronounced "savvy-oak"), the Silicon Valley start-up that designed Botlr, insist that they are not interested in automation as a labour-saving tool. They say they are simply polishing the small hotel chain's tech-embracing brand while hoping to add some efficiency.

“I see this as an enhancement to our customer service,” said Brian McGuinness, Starwood Hotels’ senior vice president for its Specialty Select brands, which include the 100 Aloft hotels expected to be opened in 14 countries by next year. “It’s not going to be a replacement for our human talent.”

Starwood uses the Aloft hotel near the Apple campus as a test bed for the technology-oriented hotel chain's newest gadgets and services. They experiment with things like easy ways to get digital content from your smartphone and tablet onto your hotel room's television screen. And, of course, you can unlock the door of your hotel room with an app on your smartphone.

So it was only natural that hotel executives were receptive when Savioke, a robotics start-up in Santa Clara, California, cold-called Starwood earlier this year with the proposal that the Aloft chain add a service robot to its array of “tech forward” gadgets and services.

Beyond having a butler’s “collar” painted on its chest, Botlr is not humanoid in appearance and is not meant to appear male or female.

It would not generate a second glance if it were stationary in a hotel lobby. But on the move, it can reach speeds of up to 4 mph. That’s about the pace of a brisk walk, and adequate for Botlr to hustle razors, toothbrushes, smartphone chargers, snacks and even the morning paper to any of the hotel’s 150 rooms in two to three minutes.

When the robot reaches the guest’s door, the system calls the room, alerting the guest to the delivery.

The robot, which has a camera and other sensors, can recognise that the room door has been opened and then lift the lid on the storage bin that holds the delivery. A flat panel display at the top of the robot is used for the guest to enter a “review” rather than giving a tip. In return for a positive review, the robot will do a small dance before it departs.

Perhaps the most impressive capability of the new robot is its ability to independently make its way to upper floors. When it reaches the elevator it wirelessly sends a command for the door to open and then manoeuvres into the elevator car, taking care to stay out of the way of any human passengers.

When it returns to the lobby, Botlr can plug itself into a recharging station while it awaits its next errand.

Savioke was founded last year by Steve Cousins, a former IBM and Xerox Parc research manager who more recently was president and chief executive of Willow Garage, a Silicon Valley robotics laboratory founded in 2006 by Scott Hassan, who wrote Google's first search engine.

New York Times