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It's a bird, it's a plane, no it's a flying robot waiter.
A Singapore-based restaurant-bar chain is gearing up to deploy drones to transport food from the kitchen to the restaurant floor – in what it claims will be a first for the global food and beverage (F&B) industry.
The move by Timbre – which has five outlets across the island – aims to address a labor crunch in the city state's services sector and boost productivity, says Edward Chia, managing director of Timbre Group.
Chia doesn't intend to use the drones as a replacement for human waiters, but to supplement his current workforce.
"With the manpower shortages, we're already so lean. So we're not looking at drones replacing waiters, it's more about workplace optimization," Chia said.
Singapore's F&B sector, like other service industries in the city-state, is grappling with a shortage of workers brought on by a tightening of labor policies in the recent years.
Restrictive manpower policies are part of the government's drive to reduce the country's dependence on foreign labor and boost productivity. Instead of the staff spending a large portion of their time shuttling back and forth between the kitchen and the restaurant floor, Chia says the drones will enable them to focus on higher value tasks such as engaging customers or highlighting new menu items or promotional dishes.
The drones, which operate autonomously and can hold up to 2kg, will not deliver food straight to a customer's table, however.
Instead, once the food or drink is prepared, a chef or bartender will place the items on the drone and key in a number for a central waiting table. Waiters will then take the food off the drone and serve the customer.
"We could have gotten the drones flying straight to the customers, but that's not what our intention is. We still want the human touch," Chia said.
Timbre, which did a trial run with the drones last week, aims to have them "serving" by the fourth quarter. It plans to deploy eight drones at each outlet.
Gimmicky or groundbreaking?
Timbre's initiative has been met by both intrigue and skepticism among customers.
"Drones may be a distraction from dinner and conversation," said 28-year-old Rishi Malhotra who dines at Timbre from time to time.
"Also, people may have to be more mindful when they get up and move around the restaurant. I see it more as a nuisance," he said.
While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of drones for improving productivity, industry watchers say robots are likely to become more common in restaurants over the next 5-10 years.
Restaurants of the future
Lim Rui Shan, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Singapore, says she's seen interest in drone technology among the group's members.
"We foresee more companies slowly adopting this technology in an attempt to address their manpower issues, but it will take some time before it becomes more widely adopted like menu e-ordering, self-service kiosks etc," she said.
However, the high cost of the technology remains a concern, Lim said.
Each drone, made by Singapore-based Infinium Robotics, costs between S$50,000 and S$100,000 ($40,000-$80,000), depending on the order size.
The price reflects R&D and technology costs, says Woon Junyang, CEO of Infinium Robotics, which took three years to develop the robotic servers.
He told CNBC the company aims to get the price down to S$10,000 in coming years.
Timbre is currently seeking productivity-related grants from the government to help with the costs.
Under the government's ICT Productivity and Growth (IPG) program, businesses can apply to receive a subsidy of up to 70 percent of the cost of technology-based productivity solutions.