Well, we can stop speculating about what Savioke has been working on, because it's the robot in the picture above: SaviOne is a delivery robot that's operating as we speak at a hotel in Silicon Valley. It's designed to provide door-to-door delivery of whatever you desire (and can fit in its cargo bin), and it drives around autonomously while emitting adorable R2-D2-ish beeps.
SaviOne is, in essence, a very fancy TurtleBot with a bin on it. It's an autonomous wheeled platform that has enough sensors to let it navigate in (we're guessing pre-mapped) semi-constrained environments. According to an article in the New York Times, a SaviOne operating at an Aloft hotel in Cupertino, Calif., can interface with the elevator and telephone systems (the hotel named their robot "A.L.O.").
The robot is about 90 centimeters tall (3 feet) and weighs less than 45 kilograms (100 lbs), and it travels at a human walking pace. The design is really sleek, and it looks like it has a simple, friendly user interface (a touch screen that doubles as the robot's face, with two blinking eyes). Still, we think that the challenge for SaviOne (and robots like it) is whether there's enough benefit to a place like a hotel for an autonomous delivery robot to be cost effective.
Even if the robot itself doesn't cost that much (we're guessing that SaviOne will sell for something in the very low five figures), additional costs would include programming the robot to drive around in specific places and adding infrastructure to let it work reliably (with the ability of operating elevators and phones, for example). Add to that support and maintenance costs.
So the question is: Does an autonomous delivery robot offer a strong value proposition such that it will entice hotels to adopt them? Savioke says the answer is yes:
We expect A.L.O. to delight guests, and also believe that some travelers will make a point of visiting the Cupertino Aloft for the sole purpose of getting a chance to meet A.L.O. in person. We believe the staff has more important things to do than deliver a toothbrush or a package of chips to a room, and that they would prefer to spend their time creating a more personalized experience for guests.
The company plans to expand its SaviOne pilot program to include additional hotels early next year, so we'll see how popular the robot will become.
In any case, it's almost certain that Savioke, founded by Steve Cousins (who formerly ran the influential robotics company Willow Garage since its inception), is building a robot that they can constantly improve. In other words, the company is developing a platform, and the delivery robot (in this particular configuration) is only its first incarnation. As such, future versions wouldn't be restricted to hotels. So what might we see in subsequent versions?
What we've consistently heard from Cousins is that he wants to create robots that help people in "hospitals, restaurants, hotels, elder care facilities, [and] offices," and that he takes a lot of inspiration from the idea of helping people with disabilities.
To be completely honest, we were expecting Savioke to be developing a mobile manipulator. And maybe they still are. It's possible that the next version of their robot (SaviTwo?) will have an arm on it so that it can go from being a passive delivery robot to an active one, which would make it much more versatile and useful. Arms are hard, though, and Savioke is a small company, so starting off with a sort of minimum viable product could be the smartest way to go (as Cousins himself has noted before).
And if you are a hotel guest wondering if tipping SaviOne is appropriate, Savioke says they are "not sure, but tweets and selfies" with the robot are okay.
[ Savioke ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.
Erico Guizzo is the digital product manager at IEEE Spectrum. An IEEE Member, he is an electrical engineer by training and has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.