Robot Baristas Help with Social Distancing in South Korea and Portland

A robot barista is serving lattes in a cafe in Daejeon, South Korea, to help customers maintain social distancing, Reuters reported. The system, developed by a smart-factory solutions provider called Vision Semicon and a state-run science institute, combines a stationary robotic arm preparing the coffee drinks behind the counter with a mobile server roaming the café to deliver the hot beverages to the customers at their tables.

"Our system needs no input from people, from order to delivery, and tables were sparsely arranged to ensure smooth movements of the robots, which fits well with the current 'untact' (no contact) and distancing campaign," Lee Dong-bae, director of research at Vision Semicon, told the news service.

South Korea is slowly transitioning from intensive social distancing rules, moving toward what the government calls "distancing in daily life." The COVID-19 infected more than 11,000 people in that country and killed 267.

The system was designed to make can make 60 different types of coffee drinks, and it can communicate with, and transmit data to, other devices. The mobile component uses self-driving technology to navigate the café floor. A single human employee works at the cafe to oversee operations and handle cleaning tasks. The manufacturer and the scientific institute aim to supply at least 30 cafes with robots this year, Reuters reported.

A coffee shop in southwest Portland called In J Coffee , unveiled its own robot barista with a YouTube video, posted last week. The owners claimed to be the first in the US to automate this process with a mechanical arm operating the expresso machine. The coffee shop's owner and U.S. coffee-roasting champion Joe Yang told The Oregonian that he programmed the arm to create the perfect cup of coffee for each and every customer.

Although the robotic system deployed in the Daejeon café all but fully automated the operation, leaving little need for human intervention (or jobs), the coffee shop in Portland was an example of a different robotics trend: humans and robots working together. Robotic devices called collaborative robots (cobots) or intelligent assist devices are built with technology and software designed to make them safe to operate around humans. These devices utilize sensors and programming that allow them to sense when they have, for example, collided with a person working beside them on a factory floor. Some cobots require programming; others learn from their tasks and even from a human teacher showing them the ropes.

They're appearing mainly in industrial manufacturing and healthcare settings. In fact, the automotive industry and healthcare are the top two segments with the greatest share of the cobot market, according to a recent report by analysts at Research Dive'. They expect the cobot market to grow by 42 percent over the next five years, reaching $8,840.5 million by the end of 2026.

"The major concept is grouping of robots with humans to significantly improve performance, productivity, and safety of the product, as long as the work is optimally shared," the report states. "Human and robot collaboration provides various levels of human and automation intervention where the tasks are partially automated if a fully automation process is complex. The safety features of cobots are velocity monitoring, workspaces and safeguard zones, collision detection, tool detection, and other benefits."

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at