A few airline passengers recently experienced the novelty of getting their coffee, beer and soft drinks dispensed by an automated bartender trolley. That maiden flight of the "Skytender" trolley represents a possible step along the long road toward a fully robotic drink service for passengers.
Flight attendants served up to 18 different drinks from the Skytender by simply pushing a button during a recent commercial flight aboard German airline WDL Aviation. Such technology falls short of fully robotic service, but it manages to combine machine-like efficiency with the more personal touch of human service.
"The passengers were extremely pleased with the beverage options and most importantly the quality and speed of service," said Oliver Kloth, general manager of Skymax, in a news release on Dec. 5.
Skytender's ability to mix up both hot and cold drinks from prepackaged syrups means that airlines would no longer have to stock individual drink containers or keep water boilers and coffee makers in the aircraft galley. Each cart can also carry 30 liters of water so that flight attendants don't have to go back to the galley for refills.
The Skytender — developed by Air-Eltec and marketed by Skymax — could appeal to many airlines with the promise of making drink service both cheaper and speedier. But can travelers expect to see a fully robotic drink service or even robotic flight attendants on flights in the near future?
That futuristic dream would require fairly complex robots capable of doing much more than just mixing prepackaged drinks upon command. A robotic servant acting as bartender or flight attendant would need the software brains, sensors and mechanical coordination to navigate the tight corridors of passenger jets, understand passenger drink requests or other questions, and hand over the drinks without mistakes or accidents.
Service robots have only just begun to get their bearings in the non-demanding environments of research labs at universities such as MIT. None would win awards for speedy, inexpensive or efficient service, let alone have the capability to deal with the complex scenarios of demanding human passengers during long airline flights.
But the U.S. military's efforts to develop humanoid robots capable of operating in human environments — such as the Navy's robot firefighter designed to climb ladders and navigate tight ship corridors — could begin to pave the way for that future when a humanoid service robot takes your drink order in the skies.