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A Kiwi Campus delivery bot (R) sizes up a Bear Robotics robotic server. Photo: Kaveh Waddell/Axios

Edging beyond the gimmicky demos of years past, robot startups are mounting a play for the more than $5.7 trillion U.S. food industry, launching their products on farms, in grocery stores and restaurants, and all the way to your front step.

Driving the news: Most bots are still wildly expensive, which has kept them from mass deployment. But they're nudging open the door to the industry, and slowly accustoming people to letting robots take care of their food.

The big picture: In recent years, the food industry has fallen behind as others, like e-commerce players, have rushed to take up robots.

  • In food, bots are generally able to do just one thing — pick a strawberry, flip a burger — and often need human supervision.
  • But they can reliably do some of these tasks as well as or better than a person, and faster — without fatigue, complaints or health benefits.

Now, big companies, some spurred by fear of Amazon's sweeping ambitions and robotics prowess, have started to buy them.

  • At ArticulATE, a conference billing itself as the first-ever food bot event, Trung Nguyen, Albertson's VP of e-commerce, yesterday said his company considered installing robots for years but was stymied by cost.
  • In October, however, the chain announced that it's testing a robotic system to pack grocery orders.
  • Kroger and Walmart, too, are installing robots to scan shelves, mop floors, and pack online orders.

In total, $1.2 billion of venture capital flowed into grocery automation last year — about twice the 2017 number.

Robots are popping up across the industry:

For the moment, robots are largely filling a labor gap in the food industry. Fewer employees than ever are willing to work long, greasy shifts in fast-food kitchens, and Nguyen says grocery delivery services are losing their drivers to Uber and Lyft.

  • "Initially, for us, it's about providing a third hand" for overworked kitchen staff, says David Zito, founder of Miso, whose Flippy works grills at CaliBurger and a deep fryer at Dodger Stadium in L.A.
  • But, he tells Axios, the kitchen "ends up looking more and more automated over time."
  • Flippy's next mission is automating pizza-making.

What's next: "The restaurant industry is very conservative, and [tech] adoption is low," said John Ha, CEO of Bear Robotics, which makes roving servers like the one pictured above. But Ha and others hope the industry will jump in all at once, if robots clearly prove their worth — like it did years ago with payment systems.

The bottom line: Despite restaurants' reticence, fast food in particular — where many tasks are designed to be simple and repetitive — is among the industries most likely to be automated, according to McKinsey.

Go deeper

Scoop: Border officials project 13,000 child migrants in May

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A Customs and Border Protection staffer told top administration officials Thursday the agency is projecting a peak of 13,000 unaccompanied children crossing the border in May, sources directly familiar with the discussion told Axios.

Why it matters: That projection would exceed the height of the 2019 crisis, which led to the infamous "kids-in-cages" disaster. It also underscores a rapidly escalating crisis for the Biden administration.

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U.S. strikes Iran-backed militia facilities in Syria

President Biden at the Pentagon on Feb. 10. Photo: Alex Brandon - Pool/Getty Images

The United States on Thursday carried out an airstrike against facilities in Syria linked to an Iran-backed militia group, the Pentagon announced.

The state of play: The strike, approved by President Biden, comes "in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement.

Senate parliamentarian rules $15 minimum wage cannot be included in relief package

Photo: Al Drago/Getty Images

The Senate parliamentarian ruled Thursday that the provision to increase the minimum wage to $15/hour cannot be included in the broader $1.9 trillion COVID relief package.

Why it matters: It's now very likely that any increase in the minimum wage will need bipartisan support, as the provision cannot be passed with the simple Senate majority that Democrats are aiming to use for President Biden's rescue bill.