Move over Mark Zuckerberg — another automated butler at a Singapore hotel is stealing the spotlight.
A year ago, the Facebook founder lifted the curtain on his efforts to engineer a robot butler named "Jarvis," named after the loyal family assistant of "Iron Man." Along those lines, the M Social hotel has its own answer to a robotic concierge: A handy helper named AURA.
The robot is specifically designed to make room service deliveries to hotel guests. AURA, which stands for "Automated Room-Service Associate," is designed to avoid obstacles, operate the elevator and make a phone call to the guest's room when she is outside.
In fact, AURA's manufacturer, San Francisco based Savioke, has robots in hotels both in and outside of the U.S. Its automated squad includes "Wally" at the Residence Inn in Los Angeles, and the Aloft Hotel's "Botlr," a robot butler at several of the hotel's locations. The company was founded in the fall of 2013, and has raised more than $20 million in funding to date from investors including Intel Capital, Disney and Google Ventures, among others.
"Our primary function right now is delivery," Tessa Lau, Savioke's CTO and "chief robot whisperer," told CNBC recently.
"When we started, honestly, no one believed we could do hotel delivery. It had never been done before, no one had heard of it, there was a lot of skepticism," she said. "People were wondering, 'how would that work? Could you really do it? Do hotels really want it?'"
Lau said the hotel industry was slow to embrace changes like these, as many are not considered early technology adopters. Now, a number of hotels are playing catch-up to some of the smart gadgets currently found in homes.
For hotel employees, the robots take the pressure off tending to residents, and free them from late-night deliveries of mundane items like a soda or a toothbrush.
Robots aren't only used for hospitality, however: They're also being piloted in hospitals, high-rise residences and other service-oriented businesses. FedEx, for example, uses the robots in several repair centers to deliver items to technicians; meanwhile, Crescent Heights' high-rise residential buildings use them to deliver groceries and packages to residents in place of a doorman.
The robots are engineered to be optimized for human-to-robot interaction. Much like R2D2 from "Star Wars," Savioke's machines communicate in beeps.
Lau mentioned that one of the biggest challenges was teaching AURA to navigate confined spaces like an elevator. One key feature is that the robots turn around and face the front when riding in an elevator, a seemingly small change that makes it appear more personable.
An elevator is "actually a really challenging environment for a robot because they have to act very quickly and very decisively but also very safely. It's really close to people and it can be really dangerous," said Lau. That's why the company is optimizing robots to not only be polite but avoid human obstacles in the hallways.