Robot cats mobilised to solve Japan's waiter shortage

Asia's Tech News Daily

Skylark has been testing the robot waiters at family restaurants in Tokyo

Japan's largest family restaurant chain plans to deploy robot waiters with cat ears across the country to counter chronic staff shortages and lower the risk of spreading coronavirus.

Skylark Holdings, said they would roll out more than 2,000 Chinese-made 'BellaBots', wheeled robot waiters with tiered trays, an array of facial expressions and 3D obstacle-detecting sensors.

The move aims to reduce the work burden on staff during peak hours, amid a growing shortage of restaurant staff, fuelled by both the pandemic as well as Japan’s rapidly aging population.

The black and white machines, with a digital display for a face, will be able to carry food for up to four people, before removing their dishes when they have finished eating, according to leading financial newspaper Nikkei Asia.

It follows the launch of a trial programme at Skylark’s restaurants in August, which found that robots halved the number of steps taken by human waiters during peak hours.

Covid has brought many complications to Japan’s restaurant industry

The global restaurant industry has been deeply impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, with months of lock-down closures and shortened opening hours fuelling chronic staff shortages.

The initiative also taps into a growing demand for contactless service in the current pandemic climate, with the emergence of a growing number of innovations in restaurants, from smartphone payments to digital menus.

Skylark’s new fleet of robo-waiters will be phased into the workforce at thousands of restaurants over the coming year, including its famed chain of Syabuyo hot pot restaurants.

Skylark, which operates 3,000 restaurants across Japan, is one of a string of Japanese companies embracing robotics, as a means to counter staff shortages and create a contactless environment.

Saizeriya, which operates 1,5000 low-cost Italian-style restaurants in Japan, has been testing robotic waiters since spring last year, while popular fast food chain Mos Burger is also trialling robots.

Meanwhile, Softbank Robotics announced a partnership last month with China’s Keenon Robotics, in a joint venture aimed at installing robot waiters in restaurants across Japan and Singapore.

Japan’s robotics industry has boomed during the pandemic, as consumers and businesses explore ways to minimise human contact across the spectrum, from medical firms and logistics to the hospitality industry.

The nation’s surge in robotic innovations has gone hand in hand with a chronic worker shortage in Japan, with the service industry hit particularly hard since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Testimony to this is the decline in the number of Japan’s tourism and restaurant sector workers – dropping from 4.05 million workers in February last year to 3.82 million in June this year, according to government data.

The pandemic is worsening an already sensitive labour situation in Japan, due to its famously fast-aging population and dwindling birthrate, combined with a long-standing reluctance to bring in overseas workers to fill vacant positions.

On the plus side, Japan’s explorations into robotics innovations in the workplace were already advanced ahead of the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis due to its demographic challenges. Since the pandemic, a number of Japanese robotics companies have recalibrated their focus from aging workforces to a wider range of social uses.

Among them is Mira Robotics, which initially developed the “ugo”, a remote-controlled avatar robot, to help boost Japan’s shrinking workforce, before switching its focus to becoming a tool to fight the pandemic.

While the ugo was initially created to perform a range of roles, such as security patrol or equipment inspections, after the pandemic, the company created a hand attachment for the robot, which uses ultraviolet light to kill viruses on door handles.

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