For fast-food help, call in the robots

Can artificial intelligence lead to a better drive-through burger? A Pittsburgh-based start-up thinks so.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
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

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.