Axios What's Next
March 30, 2022
One theme we keep hitting on here is the growing role of robots in hospitality — as restaurant servers and bartenders (see below), and so on. But sometimes things go wrong.
- Reader Stefani Koorey saw a photo of a robot waiter here and recognized it as one that had gotten into trouble at a restaurant in Orlando.
- "It was not fast enough, got in the way, could not handle certain sized plates, sloshed drinks, and angered staff," she wrote to us. "It was finally fired. And the staff rejoiced."
- Have you had a bad experience with a service robot, or seen one go rogue? Email us at [email protected].
Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,121 words ... 4 minutes.
1 big thing: Look up! Your burrito is arriving by drone
One of the first companies to deliver food by drone in the U.S. is expanding to Texas, where residents of Granbury, outside Dallas-Fort Worth, will be able to satisfy their cravings with a drone-dropped meal in about 5 minutes, Joann Muller writes.
Why it matters: Drone delivery, still a novelty in the U.S. because of regulatory limits, could address America's growing demand for instant gratification while making roads safer and less congested.
Driving the news: Flytrex, an Israeli startup already making drone deliveries in North Carolina under a pilot program, is establishing a new outpost in Granbury.
- It's part of an expanded partnership with Dallas-based restaurant chain Brinker International, the parent of Chili's Grill & Bar, Maggiano’s Little Italy and two carryout brands, It’s Just Wings and Maggiano’s Italian Classics.
How it works: Co-founder and CEO Yariv Bash describes Flytrex service as "DoorDash, but with drones."
- Customers use the Flytrex app to place their order from the menus of participating restaurants. In Granbury, they're starting with It's Just Wings.
- Flytrex employees, working out of a parking lot, grab the food, clip the bag to a cable and load it into the drone delivery box. It can handle up to 6.6 pounds — enough for a family meal of burgers, fries and beverages, or a mother lode of wings.
- The drone flies autonomously to the destination, which must be within a mile of takeoff, while a trained drone operator monitors the flight.
- Upon arrival, the drone hovers at about 80 feet, lowers the bag to the ground, then releases the clip. (Hangry customers never interact directly with the drone.)
Where it stands: Flytrex's expansion into Texas comes on the heels of it receiving a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to expand its service to 10,000 homes across North Carolina.
2. Tell your problems to the bartender
Hot trends at this year's Bar & Restaurant Expo in Las Vegas: robot bartenders (who presumably keep all your secrets), booze-free cocktails and wobble-free tables, Jennifer A. Kingson writes.
Why it matters: The show — which was back after a two-year break for the pandemic — featured lots of automation and touchless technology, the better to avoid the spread of germs.
Highlights: A two-fisted bartender named Adam that can sling both food and booze (and booze-less booze) is the brainchild of Richtech Robotics, which also makes a hotel delivery robot named Richie and trays-on-wheels that can serve meals in restaurants.
- "This friendly-looking robot fits in perfectly with numerous environments, all while providing an unparalleled standard of service," Richtech says of Adam.
Other show highlights were a self-stabilizing table base from a company called Rockless Table and a disposable lid that might dissuade a would-be malefactor from slipping a roofie in your drink, per the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
- "The Captain" is a 4½ inch drink cover that "helps prevent tampering, germs, and foreign substances from ruining your night," according to Ten of Twelve, its manufacturer.
- Like Kleenex, The Captain is dispensed from a box one sheet at a time. It is "fully recyclable" and "can be reapplied multiple times in a night," the company says.
3. FedEx taps Jetsons-inspired Elroy Air for self-flying cargo tests
FedEx Express will soon begin testing a new short-haul air cargo system using autonomous vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft developed by Elroy Air, a California startup named for the boy in the "Jetsons," Joann writes.
Why it matters: Self-flying cargo planes could help FedEx Express move goods among warehouses more safely and efficiently amid the exponential growth of e-commerce.
Driving the news: The companies said they would begin flight testing in 2023 in Fort Worth, Texas, using Elroy's Chaparral autonomous aircraft.
- Like similar aircraft, Elroy's VTOL ascends and descends like a helicopter but flies like a plane.
- It can pick up a cargo pod weighing 300 to 500 pounds without human interaction, and can deliver it by air within a range of 300 miles.
- Unlike electric VTOLs from other manufacturers, Elroy's plane is a hybrid, so it doesn't require additional infrastructure such as airports or charging stations.
4. The hunt for biodegradable plastic
Companies including Nike and food packaging giant Imperial Dade will soon begin testing new kinds of degradable thin-film packaging materials that could eventually reduce the 11 million metric tons of plastic entering the ocean every year, Hope King writes in Axios Closer.
Why it matters: Microplastic pollution not only destroys the natural cycle of global environments, it's now been detected in human blood for the first time.
The latest: American designer and filmmaker Tom Ford's Plastic Innovation Prize revealed finalists competing to win over $1.2 million.
- The contest has announced eight finalists — startups that are producing bags and films using biologically degradable alternative materials like seaweed and plant protein.
What they're saying: While retail companies have been trying to solve the problem on their own, "it's better to come up with solutions that the entire industry can access and integrate into business models," Steven Kolb, CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, told Axios.
The finalists — Genecis, Kelpi, Lwanda Biotech, Marea, Notpla, Sway, Xampla and Zerocircle — will spend the next year testing their materials.
- Testing will be conducted in Caribbean waters and by labs like the New Materials Institute at the University of Georgia for their biologically degradable quality (including what would happen if a marine mammal were to ingest), performance, cost, scalability and social impact.
The big picture: The pandemic has only made consumers more aware of their waste, and public pressure is pushing industries to find bigger solutions.
5. New hotel amenity: Talk therapy
When Jennifer was researching hotels for an upcoming trip, she was surprised to see one of the perks listed at a Kimpton in Los Angeles:
Getting your mind right is perhaps the most important part of wellness. That’s why we’ve partnered with Talkspace, online therapy from the comfort of your phone. Kimpton guests new to Talkspace receive $100 off the first month of any Talkspace plan by entering code “KIMPTON” in the app.— From the Hotel Wilshire's website
The big picture: In the wake of the pandemic, companies are starting to spotlight the importance of mental health — and to offer related benefits.
- "Kimpton is among a growing list of brands, from car companies to meal-kit makers, putting mental wellness front and center in their marketing," The Wall Street Journal reports.
- "As the issue is increasingly destigmatized — with celebrities and athletes openly discussing their own mental health — companies are seeing an opportunity to connect with consumers."
Details: Kimpton said in a press release that it was offering "up to 1,000 complimentary video therapy sessions with licensed counselors to any guest over the age of 18 staying at one of Kimpton's 60+ participating properties."
- It's also giving free Talkspace subscriptions to employees.
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