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Robot helpers planned for upcoming senior living high-rise in Tysons

Mather Director of Culinary Operations Thad Parton with a food-running robot that the senior living facility operator is testing in Arizona (courtesy Mather)

When The Mather Tysons opens in 2024, the senior living facility might employ some workers of the artificial intelligence variety.

Rest assured, these robots won’t be capable of planning a HAL 9000-style takeover. Instead, they will perform simple, repetitive tasks, such as delivering food to tables and apartments and cleaning hallways.

“Our hope is that it helps us retain team members, that they’ll recognize that we’ve gone kind of the extra step to provide them a level of assistance they may not get elsewhere in similar roles,” Mather Director of Culinary Operations Thad Parton told FFXnow.

Inspired by its founder’s work as an inventor, Mather’s plans to introduce robots to its senior living residences precede the pandemic.

According to Parton, Mather CEO and President Mary Leary asked him to explore robotics a couple of years ago as a potential way to boost service levels. After some research and conversations with vendors, he had identified a unit that would deliver food to residents’ apartments autonomously when COVID-19 arrived.

Once the worst of the pandemic’s initial surge dissipated, the nonprofit launched a pilot of the delivery robot at its life plan community in Evanston, Illinois, but as more people started eating in the dining room instead of taking food out, Parton realized his team’s needs had changed.

“The delivery robot was not as important to us as providing additional support to our dining services team, so we pivoted to testing a food-running robot,” he said, noting that the machines have become increasingly popular throughout the food service industry as restaurants adjust to an exodus of workers.

Earlier this spring, Mather deployed a food-running bot from Bear Robotics at its Splendido community in Tucson, Arizona, for a four-week pilot.

Capable of carrying 66 pounds with three trays and a built-in bussing pan, the robot transports plates of food from the facility’s kitchen to the dining room and then brings the empty dishes back to the kitchen.

“Human servers unload and serve the meals delivered by the robot, and load it up for return to kitchen,” Mather said. “This saves time for servers, who can now spend more time in the restaurant with residents.”

Mather explained exactly how the robot works:

A technician from Bear Robotics mapped out the kitchen, dining area, and route in between, and programmed in the stopping points (stations). Because of traffic patterns and layout of the dining area, Splendido decided it was best to have the robot deliver to any of six stations in the room. A server can then collect and serve out the food…

The robot’s navigation system is very precise, and it will go around stationary objects (including people) and pause and wait if someone is moving toward it. Its speed can be adjusted, and will probably end up at .9 MPH.

So far, the robot has been a hit with residents, but staff have had some reservations, according to Parton.

Since the technology remains relatively new, the robot can glitch and sometimes runs into issues when navigating the environment. Transitions between different kinds of flooring, from tile to carpet, for instance, “are kind of bumpy,” Parton says.

“It doesn’t always perform as designed, and when it does that, it frustrates the team,” he said. “That frustration turns into a feeling like it’s more work than it’s worth.”

Overall, though, Parton says the robot has worked as advertised, and Mather plans to test a different model once the current pilot concludes. Based on those tests, the company will choose a model that it hopes to utilize in all four of its residences, including the Tysons apartment high-rises that are now under construction on Westpark Drive.

In fact, The Mather in Tysons has been designed with the possibility of robot occupants in mind. If all goes according to plan, the 300-unit residence will host not just runner robots, but also the delivery units and an autonomous vacuuming robot that’s being tested in Evanston.

“The new construction will ideally accommodate them, with features like flat thresholds for smooth transitions between flooring types, as well as elevator integration so robots can potentially make deliveries to apartment homes,” Parton said.

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