March 26, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

For fast-food help, call in the robots

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Some robots are destined to rove the surface of Mars. Others, like Hyperactive Bob, will work in fast-food restaurants.

Pittsburgh's Hyperactive Technologies has come up with a system, based on the computer vision and artificial intelligence systems employed by robots, to manage the kitchens at so-called quick-service restaurants.

The vision system in Hyperactive Bob essentially scans the parking lot for incoming cars. It then cross-references traffic patterns against data about the restaurant--the bell curve of orders, the time of day, cooking times, the current amount of food in the restaurant's warming bins--and issues cooking orders to the employees manning the grill or the deep fat fryer. There isn't a mechanical humanoid assembling chicken sandwiches behind the counter. Instead, Hyperactive Bob combines machine intelligence with human activity.

By more tightly correlating the cooking line with incoming traffic, food gets cooked when it's needed, which makes customer satisfaction go up, according to Hyperactive CEO Joe Porfeli.

"You've probably had a meal in a quick-service restaurant once in your life. Your opinion of that chain is based on the last store you ate in," he said.

Hyperactive Bob
Credit: Hyperactive Technologies
A fast-food worker uses the touch
screen that is Hyperactive Bob's
interface.

So far, the company's systems have been installed in approximately 115 Zaxby's restaurants, a chain in the Southeastern United States, and pilot systems have been installed in Popeye's Chicken and Jack in the Box outlets. Carl's Jr. will kick off a pilot program soon.

Overall, there are 125,000 restaurants in the U.S. that could adopt the system, according to Porfeli. Hyperactive recently signed up with an Australian distributor as well.

Employees interact with Bob through touch screens in a two-stage process. They touch the screen to indicate they will accept a task, and then touch it again after the task has been completed.

"The interactive touch screens are $700 a piece. It has to be able to withstand high heat and grease," Porfeli said.

The hardware, which consists of a Windows PC and in-kitchen touch screens, sells for $5,000, about what the hardware costs. The company primarily makes its money from software licenses. Restaurants pay $3,000 a year for a license, Porfeli said.

The Zaxby's chain says it has saved an average of $8,000 in reduced food waste per year. And it sees other benefits as well.

"Your food is fresher because you are cooking small amounts more often," said Brandi Clanton, who owns two Zaxby's outlets and installed the robot in both. "Before Bob, they were basically cooking by guesstimate."

Porfeli says that some stores have also seen indirect benefits in higher sales and lower employee turnover.

"The turnover is relatively high because people don't like getting yelled at. When Bob goes in, the yelling goes away," he said. "It costs somewhere between $12,000 to $14,000 a year to train a new employee."

Inspired by a drive-through mishap
The company got its start thanks to a bad day in the drive-through lane. One of the founders went to a restaurant to pick up some food. When he got to the window, he was told to pull over and wait until his order was completed. That's exactly the kind of experience Hyperactive, which in March announced it had raised $8.4 million in a second round of funding, hopes it can help prevent.

But there are challenges in making Hyperactive Bob effective. For one, Hyperactive needs to simplify the interface for an employee base whose job and computer skills can be widely varied. And each store's needs and order patterns differ. A burger joint located near a school might see a spurt of activity in the afternoon, while one near a retirement community might have a rush on chicken sandwiches in the early part of the evening.

Why not simply use infrared technology to determine when cars come into the lot instead of computer vision systems, which tend to be fairly complex? For one thing, it doesn't work well in inclement weather, Porfeli said. Conventional infrared technology systems also have difficulty distinguishing between incoming and outgoing traffic.

One parameter that the company doesn't care about is the kind of car you drive. It doesn't matter, it turns out.

"We have the capability to identify types of cars by size and color and whatnot, but we have found it's not statistically relevant," he said. "A Corvette can pick up seven orders for the construction site down the street, and a minivan can have one person in it for a cup of coffee."

Unglamorous jobs such as running a kitchen in a fast-food outlet represent the future of robotics, according to many. Sony, Honda and other companies have tried to market companion pet robots and humanoids, but most of them have not sold well. Instead, consumers and businesses alike are buying more utilitarian devices such as the Roomba and Scooba from iRobot for cleaning floors.

The Department of Defense has also become a major customer for robots, investing in machines that can comb caves or perform battlefield tasks.

Pittsburgh is one of the national centers for robotics because of the robotics program at Carnegie Mellon University, which has one of the more extensive programs on the subject. Both Hyperactive founders are former CMU researchers.

See more CNET content tagged:
restaurant, robot, Pittsburgh, food, touch screen

24 comments

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Cool stuff but...
This is all pretty cool but it is realistic or how realistic is it? I guess they will have to test it out on sheep first.

I don't even trust my computer screen now I'm going to trust a robot serving food to me who is so much more mortal
I dunno.
Posted by Blito (436 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Did you even read the story
The robot's job is equivalent to what an expeditor does in a kitchen. It's not serving you food, it's directing those in the kitchen on what and when to cook which is more important in terms of cost and dining experience than those serving the food.
Posted by jamie.p.walsh (288 comments )
Link Flag
Hyperactive Bob
But can Hyperactive Bob do anything about the feces and zoo of
artificial flavorings and chemicals permeating fast food? Can
Artificial Bob do anything about the exploitation of illegal and
legal immigrants in both the agri and animal processing farms/
plants? Can Artificial Bob do anything about the inhumane,
cruel, callouss treatment of cattle, poultry, or swine across our
dear fruited plain, all in the name of lazy convenience for
overweight, in denial U.S. citizens?

Didn't think so.
Posted by Brian Breeding (22 comments )
Reply Link Flag
*sigh*
That's right, introduce your own agenda into a discussion that's not targeted toward your subject matter. That's the only reason anyone talks about anything, you know. It's only so you can throw your soapbox into the ring and start ranting.

Sometimes tone in written messages is unclear, so let me clarify: I am highly sarcastic and full of disdain.
Posted by FlappingCrane (19 comments )
Link Flag
Bob Needs To Scan For Fatties
The next release of Bob should scan the parking lot for the number of fat people, so it can order extra food to be prepared. That Zaxby's sandwich basket has a whopping 1,200 calories, 50% of which come from fat!
Posted by Stating (869 comments )
Reply Link Flag
misleading
I've seen skinny people eat 2 or 3 burgers and an order of fries and a large drink in one sitting.
Posted by HlLLARY CLTON (382 comments )
Link Flag
FAST FOOD CHAINS JUST SUCK
It's still does not address the problem of always getting your order screwed up in some way e.g. food item you paid for missing, cheese on a burger when it was stated that you did not want cheese, cold french fries because the staff is too lazy to make fresh ones. And finally... spanish speaking employees that don't understand enough english to get the order right....Fast food chains suck these days and I can't tell you the numerouse times I have been ripped off by them popeyes, McDonalds, Wendy's KFC and their moronic errors on my order. Yes, I call them to let them know my order was wrong but who in the hell wants to drive back just to get a order of fresh french fries? At One place (Wendy's in Las Vegas) when I asked for no cheese on my burger and notified them of the fact that it had cheese on it, took it back and just scraped it off wrapped it up and gave it back to me. Fix that first before anything else.
Posted by inlasvegas1 (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nail on the head
Can't I simply expect my order to be correct without having to disassemble the whole meal before I leave the drive through to verify proper construction? Dead on, inlasvegas.
Posted by shoffmueller (236 comments )
Link Flag
Good point
The last time I went to Wendys (years ago), I ordered a Double cheeseburger. I got home and it was a single. After I drove 5 miles back, instead of eating my dinner at home, the employee wanted to know what I was upset about. I explained to her and the manager that I was upset because Wendys was hiring people to work in their establishments who could not even count to two!

Not only are the employees incompetent, but they seem to think it's cool to do the job badly. The least important part of their job is good customer service. I no longer have a problem with fast food, I just don't patronize these restaurants.
Posted by ogman (150 comments )
Link Flag
Slash-Dot
Who reads the story? :)
Posted by meski.oz (100 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Computers on the cook line
I work in a restaurant on the cook line every day. While I might like the idea of a computer assistant, I would not want it to replace the intuition I have gained from working at the restaurant. Plus, we do more than just cook the food, we interact with the customers on an individual basis. Our only computers would be the register, and the Internet based training system (called Sysdine) that the new employees train on to learn the basics of working at the restaurant.


P.S. The restaurant I am working in is a North Carolina based Franchise called "Andy's Cheesesteaks and Cheese Burgers". I work in the Nashville store. The company website is: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.andyscheesesteaks.com/" target="_newWindow">http://www.andyscheesesteaks.com/</a>
Posted by Michael00360 (58 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Too risky!
I don't eat fast food anymore, and I won't until they improve the safety and cleanliness of the restaurants. Next time you are in a fast food restaurant, carefully observe the kitchen and the employees. If you do this, you won't eat there either.
Posted by ogman (150 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Really?
I did that many times at McDonald's and I can tell you I still go there.
Posted by Fil0403 (1303 comments )
Link Flag
Really?
I did that many times at McDonald's and I can tell you I still go there. Not only that, my brother has wroked there already and he still goes there too.
Posted by Fil0403 (1303 comments )
Link Flag
Agreed
Last time I stepped into a fast-food place like Mcdonalds,Burger-King, or a Wendys was over a year ago. In fact once I stopped my health overall improved. It did not matter which one you went to I saw the employees wiping their arms on their noses and then going right on back to work. Whats worse is all the trash you see on the floor in some,not all. In order of cleanliness heres where I rate the big ones(from mediorce to really bad): Wendys, Burger King, and Mcdonalds.

Now about the machine they are planning to install. bob still will not improve cleanliness of the place itself will it? Maybe but most likely not.
Posted by Fremia (21 comments )
Link Flag
Cleanness of Store
I can say this, the restaurant that I work at has held an "A" average since it opened. The cook line is out in full view of the customers, and this is a grade without the "safe serve" certifications.
Posted by Michael00360 (58 comments )
Link Flag
read this guys story called Mana
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://marshallbrain.blogspot.com/2006/07/predicting-future-in-manna.html" target="_newWindow">http://marshallbrain.blogspot.com/2006/07/predicting-future-in-manna.html</a>

I've read it; its based on this fast food technology... might be a little dystopian but it's still a good read.
Posted by phatjoe_numba1 (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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