April 16, 2021 at 12:09AM

Of all the descriptors that could be applied to the Domino’s pizza chain, “robotics” doesn’t seem to be a likely one. And yet, this week, it seems to be the aptest description for the firm as it rolls out its first-ever pizza-delivery bots in partnership with Nuro, using its “completely autonomous, occupantless on-road delivery vehicle,” according to a press release.

In the release, Nuro said R2 is the first such delivery vehicle to obtain regulatory approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The new pizza delivery bots will be available to select customers who place a prepaid order on certain days and times from Domino’s in the greater Houston, Texas area.

Consumers who choose robot delivery will get regular updates on the bot’s location and a unique PIN to track their order. When the bot arrives, consumers can enter their PIN on the R2 touchscreen, which will then prompt the bot to open up and offer up the customer’s order.

“There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space,” said Dennis Maloney, Domino’s senior vice president and chief innovation officer. “This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations.”

And while this is the latest step in the chain’s ongoing efforts at upgrading its digital pizza game, it is also a move forward for robotics. Robots seem to be everywhere of late, though their consumer-facing presence can vary quite widely. Bear Robotics builds robotic restaurant servers that zip between the kitchen and dining room, carrying customers’ orders. Bear’s unique contribution is that it remotely oversees the bots and makes sure they stay on course and operate efficiently.

The robots are also getting in on the food preparation side of things. When The Senate Tavern in Ottawa, Canada was forced to close its doors due to pandemic restrictions, it attempted to offer takeout in the form of their new pizza vending ATMs. As General Manager Grant Marley told CBC, robotics was the eatery’s out-of-the-box solution to stay ahead of frequently shifting regulations while offering customers something hot to eat, even while its doors are closed.

“We’re able to keep our cooks employed — not as much as it used to be, but any little bit helps right now,” Marley said. Human cooks have to prep the pizzas before they can be loaded into the pizza ATM, where a robotic arm moves the refrigerated, pre-prepped pies into an internal oven for cooking.

There has also been the recent announcement of the Moley kitchen robot, the reported creation of Russian mathematician and computer scientist Mark Oleynik, built to prepare restaurant-quality meals without its owner having to lift a finger — or order out.

The current cost to build this bot into a kitchen is £248,000 (~$342,000) — an impressive sum, but one that Oleynik claims over a thousand consumers have inquired about paying. He said the price is equivalent to a supercar or small yacht. The company hopes to introduce lower-priced models in the future.

“What you are looking at here is the world’s first consumer robotic kitchen,” Oleynik said as he launched the robot kitchen at the Gulf Information Technology Exhibition in Dubai. “Like all breakthrough technologies – cars, televisions and computers – it will appeal to enthusiasts, professionals and early adopters, and is priced accordingly.”

But even for those of us who can’t shell out the average price of a new house for a robotic chef, robotics will still play a role in our kitchens – though more behind the scenes, as robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are increasingly being used to optimize farming. With robotics, farms can pick, pack, plant and sell crops more quickly and efficiently, and better optimize their products and harvesting cycles.

“There is an immediate need to improve efficiency and reduce costs, especially now that the pandemic has exposed just how fragile the supply chain is,” said Suma Reddy, CEO of Future Acres, an agricultural robotics and artificial intelligence company. “We saw shortages in both production and more workers being put at risk when picking specialty crops on a daily basis, which has really caused the industry to take a step back and re-examine how we can create greater resiliency in the food chain.”

And farms are just one supply chain that robotics are working to transform. A little robot named Dill, introduced by a company named Pickle Robots, was purpose-built to unload boxes off of trucks – at a peak rate of 1,800 boxes an hour. The fastest humans in the world doing the same task can pick about 800 boxes. Even off peak, Dill is pretty impressive, averaging 1,600 boxes an hour.

Robots, it seems, are popping up everywhere: delivering, unloading, cooking and even farming the crops. But, according to the The Washington Post, it will still be a while before we have in-home robot butlers to do the laundry and tidy up alongside the cooking. The technology is advancing, according to the experts, but we’re a few years away from affordable in-home applications of robotics.

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