“Hi Frankie. Your drink is ready,” the robot announced with an endearing, mechanical wave. I had to fight the urge to say “thank you,” knowing that this was essentially a machine. But I did so anyway.
“Ella” is Singapore’s first fully autonomous robot barista, launched last week at Crown Coffee. It was designed by Crown Digital, the coffee shop’s smart retail solutions provider. The first prototype was built in 2017 in response to labor shortages and turnover, Keith Tan, CEO of Crown Group told reporters assembled for the launch last week.
To order, I downloaded the cafe’s mobile app and with a few clicks of a button, my choice was transmitted and displayed on a digital screen.
Ella immediately went to work on a warm milk tea, or teh tarik, swiftly grabbing a cup and placing it at the drink dispenser. No more than three minutes passed. “Please enjoy your teh tarik,” she said, as the finished order was placed in front of me.
Lockdowns have crippled the hospitality industry, as in-person dining remains restricted in many countries. But with no telling when the pandemic will come to an end, similar technologies have been on the rise everywhere, as people fear the risk of contracting the virus from close contact with others.
Even in places where restaurants, cafes and bars have reopened, some consumers and owners may still be wary about returning to normal routines where they are sitting, eating or serving others indoors.
In China’s Foshan City, the Foodom Robot Restaurant, with its robot chefs and waiters, became a popular spot for those looking for contactless service. In Japan, ZMP Inc developed an autonomous food delivery robot that took to the streets in August.
Singapore has also embraced automation to help flatten the curve. The BeamPro robot was deployed at Alexandra Hospital in March to deliver meals and medication to COVID-19 patients. In May, Singapore also deployed a robotic dog, Spot, to enforce social distancing between residents at a park.
Ella can do more than make coffee and tea. She can be turned into an augmented reality photo booth, or engage a customer in a quick game while waiting for their drink to be made. She is reportedly four times faster than a human barista and can produce 200 cups of coffee per hour.
“She, in a way, is like a blank slate. We can program hundreds of drinks for her. She can even serve cocktails,” a representative of Crown Coffee told VICE News.
As of Oct. 4, there were 210 active cases of the coronavirus in Singapore. While Singapore works towards re-opening its economy and borders, travel still remains limited as Changi Airport has suspended operations at two terminals.
The top-rated airport hub warned in a report that the future appears “daunting with the situation showing no signs of abatement.”