I have seen the future, and it’s full of salad-making robots

bear robotics
Michael Wolf, founder of The Spoon food tech blog and the Smart Kitchen Summit, watches Bear Robotics’ delivery robot at the ArticulATE food robotics event in San Francisco on April 16, 2019. The Spoon

We’ve all gotten used to robots that can clean floors and automate manufacturing. But can they take over the often tricky work of preparing, serving and delivering food?

The answer, from a gaggle of entrepreneurs at the inaugural Articulate Food Robotics Summit in San Francisco earlier this week, was a resounding yes. Robots that can bus tables, toss salads, and bake bread (among other tasks) took center stage at the event, and their creators and the venture capitalists who back them believe they can revolutionize a wide range of food-related businesses. It was the first time that robotics startups mingled with large food chains and other industry players to discuss how robotics can make a difference in everything food-service related, said Michael Wolf, founder of The Spoon food tech blog and the Articulate event.

briggo coffee robot
The Briggo coffee robot is serving java at Dell and a few other businesses. Briggo, Inc.

The most visible robots, to consumers, are likely to be those involving food prep and delivery. For example, Briggo’s robot baristas prepare coffee drinks on demand, typically in corporate environments: They are in use at Dell. You order and customize a drink using Briggo’s smartphone app, then collect it in person.

A Briggo Coffee Haus can prepare about 100 drinks an hour and serve 10 customers at a time, company founder and chief technical officer Chas Studor told the conference. But coffee addicts beware: The device can collect a lot of data about users’ coffee habits. (Coffee lovers can enjoy similar robot barista service at the BBox Cafe in Berkeley, California.)

Sally the salad maker

Also on display at the event: Sally the Robot, a vending machine that dispenses freshly tossed salads on demand. Created by Redwood City, California-based Chowbotics, Sally is already deployed in some 50 locations around the country.

It (she?) features a handsome touchscreen display on which you can either choose a standard salad or create your own from ingredients stored in the refrigerated unit. You can then watch Sally dispense the fixings, toss them with dressing (which you can also customize), and deliver it all to a cardboard bowl, much the way vending machines typically deliver hot beverages.

sally the robot salad maker
Sally the robot salad maker is a vending machine that lets you choose from fresh ingredients and dressing. Chowbotics

Food delivery is another area where robots are making inroads. Two companies at Articulate demonstrated very different approaches to delivering groceries and/or takeout orders. Kiwi designs tiny buggy-style electric robots that roll along city sidewalks at about 4 miles per hour and hold a couple of bags of groceries.

Kiwibots are a lot cheaper than drones, and are already fixtures at UC Berkeley, where company founders developed the technology. The customer collects the Kiwibot’s contents by running a smartphone app that successfully scans the QR code on the device.

Kiwibot

AutoX, in contrast, is going with full-blown vehicles capable of freeway speeds and able to hold 20 to 30 grocery bags, allowing for multiple deliveries on a single run. Eventually, the company expects these delivery vehicles to be self-driving.

Restaurants may also take advantage of new technology to offload menial work. Redwood City, California-based Bear Robotics, for example, has created a robot named Penny that can serve and bus tables. “Everybody loved to see the robot in the restaurant,” Bear Robotics CEO John Ha said.

Asked whether human waiters resented their robotic co-worker, Ha said they appreciated not having to hoist the heaviest trays.

Asked whether human waiters resented their robotic co-worker, Ha said they appreciated not having to hoist the heaviest trays. They also found that tipping rates rose since the waiters had more time for customer service.

San Carlos, California-based Dishcraft Robotics, meanwhile, is working on back-of-house robots for food prep–robotic arms and the like. (We’ve seen other robot waiters, such as the Ginger created by Nepal’s Paaila Technology.)

ginger robot paaila technology
Ginger, the robot waiter Paaila Technology

Supermarkets are also looking into automation that goes beyond the self-checkout counters already installed in many stores. Albertson’s, for example, has partnered with Waltham, Massachusetts-based Takeoff Technologies to use robots in micro-fulfillment centers that handle online orders.

Following promising trials (including an ongoing one in Walla Walla, Washington), Coeur d’Alene, Idaho-based Wilkinson Baking Company is getting ready to deploy its Breadbot robotic bakers in three or the five top supermarket chains, CEO Randall Wilkinson said.

A large contraption somewhat reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg creation, a Breadbot can produce six loaves of bread an hour, or about 90 a day, using ingredients loaded the night before, Wilksinson said. Customers can pick up a loaf of freshly baked bread and use another machine to slice it to order (thin, medium or thick).

wilkonson breadbot
The BreadBot hopes to automate the task of baking bread. Wilkinson Baking Company

Wilkinson says Breadbots have the potential to bring shoppers who might otherwise purchase all their groceries online back to brick-and-mortar stores to enjoy the scent of baking bread and the ability to customize their slices. “People like to interact with their food,” he said.

So…will we see these robots in restaurants and grocery stores soon? And will they eventually replace humans in the food industry? Not so fast, Wolf said. While robots are being more widely used in test cases, there’s not universal adoption yet. Restaurants might be interested in robotics for rote activities like slicing vegetables or working the fryer, but there will always be a need for humans in the industry.

“In 2019 we could probably be seeing these things scaling more widely,” Wolf told Digital Trends.  “We’re certainly not in a place where restaurants can just remove humans. The consensus is we’re not there yet, nor do we want to be.”

Emerging Tech

Impossible Foods struggles to keep up with Impossible Burger demand

Red Robin and White Castle have reported Impossible Burger shortages, as it appears that Impossible Foods is struggling to keep up with demand. The company will be selling its meat-like patties in retail outlets within the year.
Deals

The Ninja Air Fryer AF101 gets a steep 31% discount on Amazon

Whether you are a health-conscious snack seeker or a fried-food fan, you will find love with the Ninja Air Fryer AF101. Normally $130, it is now available for only $90.
Outdoors

For $5,000, Airbnb will take you around the world in 80 days. Airfare included

Airbnb's new Adventures allow travelers can book a mix of accommodations, food, and experiences in what Airbnb calls "bucket list" worthy trips, including a round-the-world trip for just $5,000
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Facebook’s Study, Uber’s fast-food drones, deepfake Zuck

On this episode of DT Live, we discuss the biggest tech news of the day, including Facebook’s new Study app, Uber’s fast-food delivery drones, a new Legends of Zelda game, an update from E3, and deepfake Zuck.
Deals

The Shark ION Robot Vacuum RV750 gets a hefty 41% discount on Amazon

Household chores can be a drag. Lucky for us, we now have robot vacuums to make our lives easier. If you’re looking to buy one, now is the right time as Amazon is offering the Shark ION RV750 Vacuum for only $223.
Deals

The best Amazon Prime Day 2019 deals: Leaked date and what you need to know

Amazon Prime Day 2019 is still a month away, but it's never too early to start preparing. We've been taking a look at the best discounts from previous Prime Days to give you our predictions of what to expect this year.
Giveaways

Robot vacuum giveaway: Enter to win a new iRobot Roomba i7+ robot vacuum

If you need an extra hand around the house, then you might be in luck: We’re giving readers the chance to win a new iRobot Roomba i7+ – our favorite robot vacuum and a $1,100 value – totally free.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Plant-based shoes and a ukulele learning aid

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Smart Home

Walmart Grocery challenges Amazon with a new $98-a-year delivery option

The grocery delivery wars are hotting up. Walmart's latest effort is a $98-a-year subscription fee that offers free delivery on orders over $30. The service, called Delivery Unlimited, can be tried free for 15 days.
Smart Home

A new survey by Adobe shows an evolving market for voice applications

A new consumer survey conducted by Adobe Analytics has uncovered a growing desire for more diversity in voice-controlled applications and devices as well as growing engagement with voice ads.
Deals

Walmart drops Ninja kitchen appliance deals on blender system and coffee maker

Walmart is offering Ninja's Mega Kitchen System and Coffee Bar for only $140 each. Upgrade your kitchen with reliable equipment that will expand your meal-prep capabilities by taking advantage of these amazing deals.
Deals

iRobot discounts $150 off i7+, a Roomba robot vacuum that empties its own bins

iRobot just took $150 off its best robot vacuum model, the Roomba i7+. The flagship model Roomba i7+ has stronger suction and smarter house-mapping than previous models, but automatic dirt disposal is the killer feature.
Deals

iRobot Roomba robot vacuum cleaners get huge price cuts before summer

We've found the best discounts on Roomba robot vacs and put them in one place. Whether you're shopping for a gift or need extra help around the house, these six robot vacuum deals can help you save up to $200.
Deals

The best iRobot Roomba deals to make cleaning your home a breeze

Keep your home clean without lifting a finger using a robot vacuum cleaner. These nine iRobot Roomba deals not only help you keep your home tidy, but many also come with advanced features such as automatic scheduling and Wi-Fi connectivity.