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Vol 21, No. 07, July 2017   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
Drones, Robots and Food

What a time to be alive. Drones that drop pizza at your doorstep, robots that take your food orders, tapping out an order from your smartwatch, the list goes on. We have become used to the ubiquitous food delivery apps that have permeated the food scene like UberEats, FoodPanda and Deliveroo, but novel technologies like drones and robots still make for a delightful unexpected sight. Why all these inventions though, are they just for novelty’s sake or do they give a boost in food company’s sales? Well, it seems like the established technology of food apps are certainly helping companies rake in the dough. Digital engagement with customers accounted for over half of USA’s Domino’s sales. 21 percent of Starbucks’ sales were from their mobile app. Customers also benefit from the convenience of ordering ahead to skip the queues or have food sent directly to their doorstep, loyalty programmes and online coupons. [1] The sheer ease of ordering without being physically in the store saves time and effort. Branching out from just a specific app-based ordering system alone, other digital platforms and improvements to the existing app are being implemented to gain customer reach. From placing a customised order from your smartwatch; a “zero-clicks” app to even through tweeting a pizza emoji, you name it, Domino’s has rolled out these strategies to capture our attention. However, streamlining the process of ordering may entail more problems. Consumers have to set up a customised pizza profile beforehand, which is restrictive in the sense that customers have to want to order the same type of pizza repeatedly. Competitors like Pizza Hut have tested a menu with eye-tracking abilities, rendering our subconscious mind being “read” and have options chosen for us as we look at the menu. It has potential for people with disabilities and serves as a way to collect consumer data, but faces several obstacles. [2] For example, there are many other reasons why a consumer may linger on a topping or item besides wanting to choose it, and to me, a gadget tracking every one of my eyeball movements is a little concerning as there seems to be a sense of intrusion of privacy through collection of information.

As we advance in innovation, more novel technologies in food delivery are capturing people’s curiosity now. Stay in a far-flung area in the mountains? No problem! Drones are potentially game-changers in the business of food deliveries, as they can avoid traffic jams and take a more direct route to allow much faster and more flexible options to reach the desired delivery locations. This allows for lowered costs. However, as drones are limited in capacity to carry multiple packages, further R&D has to be done to make drones truly cost effective. [3] The “cool” factor of an unmanned aircraft extending a line with your food attached to it, and lowered down to your doorstep boosts the company’s brand recognition, and also nudges consumers to order to try out the experience for themselves. I would personally pay to try it out should it become available in Singapore. FoodPanda may be offering this service locally to get an edge over its competitor, Deliveroo. [4] There are quite a few limitations to drone deliveries that have prevented their widespread use so far though. For instance: bad weather, limited battery span, airway obstacles and government regulations. In Singapore, drones weighing 7kg or more, or within 5km of the airport, and flying at 61m above sea level require permits. [5] In USA, drone operators have to ensure their drone is kept within their line of sight.

A similar tech closer to land is delivery robots. Using cameras, GPS and sensors, it learns to navigate the busy city streets to deliver its food locked in an insulated compartment. First thing that pops to mind is that would not these knee-high bots be prone to theft? Not to fret, the robots are equipped with alarms and tracking devices that pinpoint the thief’s exact location. The bot would also not function and open unless reprogrammed. [6]

Robots are even being put to use for food delivery within stores itself. Pizza Hut has a robot named Casper who acts as a greeter and assigns customers tables in the restaurant. KFC in Shanghai features Dumi, a robot in charge of taking orders. Will these robots slowly put us humans out of jobs? Well, it seems like for now, robots excel at repetitive tasks, but scientists have yet to replicate the human touch in robots. They cannot handle complex interactions with customers and delicate tasks like delivering soup are difficult. Trouble understanding dialects are also some of the barriers robots face in customer interactions. I feel that these robots may serve as novel entertainment in stores for now, but ultimately, consumers will still appreciate the human touch - gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice, to feel that they are valued customers warranting repeat visits to the store. Robots however will be excellent staff at doing more menial repetitive tasks, for example, preparing a ramen bowl – boil water, cook noodles, portion soup and put garnishes, or preparing a pizza – dispense and spread sauce on the pizza base. Collaboration between robots and humans can help speed mechanical processes up, leaving humans to focus on creative areas like improving recipes, tasting and quality control.

Tech has definitely been a game-changer in in the food scene. How companies harness these tech, and achieve the fine balance of utilising humans and robots for optimum business, remains a game of trial and error. And as the tech improves, I am sure we will be seeing more hovering drones in the air and meet delivery robots on our walk home back from work.


  1. https://www.eater.com/2016/6/22/11994746/mobile-apps-dominos-mcdonalds-starbucks
  2. https://www.eyegaze.com/pizza-hut%E2%80%99s-new-eye-tracking-menu-takes-your-unconscious-order/
  3. https://www.flexport.com/blog/drone-delivery-economics/
  4. https://www.forbes.com/sites/cfeng/2016/03/22/foodpanda-ceo-drones-will-deliver-food-in-a-few-months/#76631fa2774a
  5. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/drone-laws-in-singapore
  6. https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2017/03/23/520848983/hungry-call-your-neighborhood-delivery-robot

By Cheryl Lee Zhi Qin
Cheryl likes to write and learn new things, especially in public health issues and science. She hopes to travel to as many countries as possible.

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