JAPAN – SoftBank robotics, a world leader in humanoid robotics, is set to bring a food service robot developed by California-based Bear Robotics to Japan as restaurants grapple with labour shortages and a new socially distanced norm as a result of the novel coronavirus.

The robot named Servi will act as a sort of waiter, using its layers of trays to carry food and drinks and its 3D cameras and Lidar sensors to navigate between kitchen and tables.

Servi will be launched in Japan in January and will cost 99,800 yen (US$950) per month excluding tax on a three-year plan, SoftBank Group Corp said.

The start up first showed a prototype to Softbank chief executive Masayoshi Son last year and SoftBank led a $32 million round of investment in the startup in January.

The launch leverages SoftBank’s long experience in bringing overseas technology to Japan but reflects the shift away from Son’s earlier focus on humanoid robots.

Servi has been tested by Japanese restaurant operators, including Seven & i Holdings at its Denny’s chain, as the sector grapples with an aging workforce and deepening labour shortages.

The launch comes as companies are scrambling to employ technology to offer contactless service and ensure social distancing.

SoftBank’s humanoid Pepper robot became the face of the company following its 2014 unveiling but failed to find a global customer base.

The firm in 2018 announced cleaning robot Whiz, which employs technology from group portfolio company Brain Corp and has sold more than 10,000 units worldwide.

SoftBank is touting the use of Whiz as a coronavirus countermeasure and said on Monday that Pepper can be used in conjunction with thermal sensors to monitor customers.

There are currently over 35,000 SoftBank Robotics robots, Pepper, NAO and Whiz, used in more than 70 countries worldwide and offer applications relevant in the fields of retail, tourism, healthcare, finance, education, facilities management and cleaning.

SoftBank Robotics Group has offices in Tokyo, Paris, London, San Francisco, Boston, Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, and Sydney.

This month, SoftBank announced the sale of cellphone distributor Brightstar as it cuts links to the telecoms industry.

The group also owns Boston Dynamics, which developed the four-legged robot Spot. SoftBank has a history of troubled investments in the robotics sector.

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