Holiday shoppers may see service robots in shopping malls, but restaurant goers in China and elsewhere may soon become familiar with the Peanut waiter robot from Keenon Robotics Co. The company said it is one of the largest service robotics providers in China, and it is growing worldwide.
Keenon grows quickly
Shanghai-based Keenon was founded in 2010, and its product line includes the G1 Guiding Robot, the G2 mobile robot with accessories, and the G3 Hotel Robot, as well as the T1 Delivery Robot or Peanut.
“We started with industrial equipment, and in 2012, we started to consider commercial robots in restaurants as a big market opportunity,” said Simi Wang, international business development manager at Keenon. “It took three years to release our first version [for that application], but it didn’t work that well. The technology was new, clients were not familiar with robots, and they were mainly used to catch the eyes of customers.”
“In 2015 and 2016, we had version updates,” she told The Robot Report. “The final version was ready in 2017. We have a robot that is functional and can conduct human-like tasks. Whatever work restaurants can spare one employee provides a one-year payback. It means after the first year of the payback period, the restaurants will have a free robot staff member, as the endurance is five to six years.”
The company has been growing quickly. “Last year was crucial, as the company grew from 30 to 130 people,” Wang said. “It’s now about 200 people, including 100 engineers, 40 marketing people, and 30 in administration.”
Keenon developed its mobile robots in response to customer requirements. “The top institutions and restaurant groups in China are our customers,” said Wang. “We sell most of our delivery and guiding robots directly, and we can customize them for customers.”
“All our robots share a mobile base, for which we developed both the hardware and the software,” she explained. “We have SLAM [simultaneous localization and mapping] and depth perception to 1 meter, and delivery to 1 cm precision — some of the highest in the market at the moment.”
Keenon’s robots use lidar and machine vision, as well as infrared sensors for detecting the status of its payload, such as dishes in the case of food service.
“The navigation system and reducing the failure rate were the hardest parts of development,” Wang said. “The robots look simple, but they can go into crowded restaurants and move smoothly among people. Most other service robots can’t work smoothly if the aisle isn’t big enough — 90cm [35.4 in.] Our navigation and precision are our differentiators.”
Peanut’s user interfaces includes voice recognition and simplified visual and touchscreen displays.
“The original version of our robots were controlled by a panel on the robot, and we have a pendant system,” she added. “Peanut has a battery life of eight hours and a full recharging time of around four hours. It’s all automatic, and the user can set the time or battery range. Restaurants in China can run almost 24 hours.”
Service robot use cases
According to Keenon Robotics, more than 10,000 of its service robots are in use internationally, and it has sold more than 6,000 this year alone.
“In China, large restaurant chains say our robots are the best for indoor delivery,” Wang claimed. Haidilao, China’s largest hotpot restaurant chain by sales, has partnered with Panasonic and Keenon for robot chefs and waiters, respectively.
One U.S. deployment is at Robot Captain Crab Restaurant in Newark, Del., where it navigates using dots on the ceiling. Customer reactions have been positive.
“Typically, our distributors handle service and add functions, such as software or remote control. They also do localization and customize the appearance,” Wang said. “In hotels, the robot can be connected to lifts.”
What’s the biggest challenge for selling Keenon’s service robots worldwide? “The biggest difference is the reaction to robotics,” said Wang. “In the West, people are worried about robots taking jobs, which is not true. Most of our clients say that robots create more job opportunities.”
“In China, we don’t have this kind of concern. People are more open to technology, and companies want to be more efficient and increase customer flow,” she said. “In Australia, concerns about jobs are even greater than in the U.S. Such robots are not yet mature in Western markets, but there are lots of service robot manufacturers in China.”
“We’re not just selling robots; we’re solving problems in hospitality, retail, and elder care, where it’s hard to find enough staffers and keep turnover low,” Wang said. “That’s why we can sell so many robots in two years — there’s a one-year payback, according to restaurants.”
Keenon plans for enhancements, new markets
Keenon plans to focus on data management, remote control, and interactivity, said Wang. “We currently collect navigation data, but not interaction data,” she noted.
“Our distributors can rent out robots, but we only sell them,” she said. “We offer robots as a service [RaaS] in China, but not overseas.”
Some of Keenon’s distributor partners are selling its service robots to healthcare facilities, but not within China. The company’s service robots are already in France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Spain, the U.A.E., and the U.K., with plans to expand in Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden.