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Robot Room Service: Savioke Aims to Forge New Business Model for Robotics (Video)

A robotics veteran tries to remake the hotel industry.

Tyler Pina for Re/code

Often, people will see Steve Cousins’s robots — the whirring, intricate fruits of a lengthy career in the futuristic field — and ask him: “Do they vacuum?”

After all, that’s the main function of the Roomba, the most quotidian robot. Some 15 million of them are in the market; another million-plus industrial robots exist, part of a manufacturing industry that has chugged along for decades. Cousins, CEO of two-year-old robotics startup Savioke, wants to forge a third path for robotics businesses — a model where the smart devices are used by other companies to improve customer experiences. They call it “robotics as a service.”

Savioke is applying the model to hotels. Its main robot, Relay, is squat, silver and cylindrical, with a simple digital interface and lid on top — imagine a sleeker R2-D2, or a spruced-up trashcan. It primarily works as a silent bell hop, delivering foods, towels, etc., at the request of guests and staff. The robot currently operates in four hotel chains in California and New Jersey, and is adding two more soon.

Relay, by Savioke
Relay, by Savioke
Tyler Pina for Re/code

Guests at the hotels are largely comfortable with the robots, some even finding them preferable to human contact, Cousins said. “You don’t need to get dressed for it.”

Savioke leases the robots to hotels rather than selling them outright, a model that lets Savioke bear the brunt of the upfront costs and maintenance, Cousins claimed. He also argued that the robots help an industry besieged by a different type of tech. “It maybe even gives hotels a chance to compete with Airbnb,” he said.

Before Savioke, Cousins was the president and CEO of Willow Garage, a respected robotics lab. It shut down in 2013, splintering into eight different companies, three of which went to Google during its massive robotics buying spree.

Savioke currently has 30 Relays in the market. How many would Cousins like? “A thousand is a good number,” he offered. “A million sounds good, too.”

Re/code caught up with Savioke at the RoboBusiness conference:

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