When Nobody Wants to Work at Your Restaurant, Hire a Drone

A chain in Singapore is solving a staffing shortage by using the unmanned aerial vehicles to carry food to tables.
Feb 9, 2015·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Plenty of outside uses for drones (besides killing people in war) have popped up over the past couple of years. The unmanned aerial vehicles are being deployed to monitor crops, track malaria-carrying monkeys, and give us a rare glimpse at Chernobyl. But thanks to a staffing shortage, a restaurant chain in Singapore is bringing the flying robot machines inside to serve food and drinks. Welcome to the rise of drones as servers.

Edward Chia, the managing director of the Timbre Group, which runs several restaurants in Singapore, told BBC News that he plans to purchase 40 drones to work in six locations. Thanks to new visa restrictions, the pool of foreign-born workers, which restaurants in the Asian country used to rely on, has dried up. Local workers don't want to take service industry jobs because they don't pay much and are seen as being for folks of lower social status. As a result, according to BBC News, the country’s food and beverage industry is facing a shortage of nearly 7,000 workers.

One drone can whisk about five pounds' worth of food or drinks to a customer’s table. You can see one carrying a drink to a customer in the video above. But while the idea of a bunch of robots whizzing around a restaurant sounds futuristic, customers might also worry about how safe the drone servers are—and with good reason. Here in the United States, a “Mobile Mistletoe” drone flying around a Brooklyn TGI Friday’s in December sliced off the tip of a woman’s nose. But in the video here, Junyang Woon, the CEO of Infinium Robotics, the manufacturer of the drones the Timbre Group is using, says that sort of scenario won’t happen in Singapore. Infinium's drones use infrared sensors and cameras to avoid crashing into each other or customers.

Will drones as servers be making a debut in America anytime soon? Given all the debate over raising the minimum wage in the U.S., it might seem like figuring out how to deploy the aerial vehicles instead of employing people would be a tempting way for businesses to cut costs. But if customers in the U.S. are anything like those in Singapore, they might not be down for such a shift, and not just because they're scared of the machines.

"It provides efficiency especially at bigger establishments. So it could well be the future. I would be keen to try it, it's a novelty—but it's something that's not very attractive in the long run. I just think service needs to feel personal," said one customer, nonprofit director Stacey Choe.

That personal touch to eating out is something Chia's aware of—he's not planning to fire any staff members. He told BBC News that the 90 staff members at his six restaurants will simply have more face time with customers. After all, they won't have to dash back and forth from the kitchen so much. They'll still be talking to customers and taking their orders, and they'll be needed to place plates and glasses on the drone’s flat surface.