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Roanoke retirement community testing food-serving robot to combat staffing shortage

Published: Apr. 27, 2022 at 7:39 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - It’s no secret staffing shortages have put a strain on many industries. Brandon Oaks Life Plan community in Roanoke took matters into its own hands. A very distant relative of the terminator is on the payroll at Brandon Oaks.

“It does not have any arms or any legs, so it should not be taking over anything,” says Cory Wilkie, dining operations manager at Brandon Oaks.

The facility has begun testing a robot that will take food to residents in the dining hall, and take empty dishes back to the kitchen.

“We’re like everybody else in the area where we’ve had challenges in regard to staffing,” explains Ben Burks, the executive director. “Instead of dwelling on who is not coming, we tried to look at other opportunities to come up with solutions. We found this opportunity to bring in a robot to help us.”

“It is programed with a map of our dining room,” adds Wilkie. “So, whenever someone wants to send plates or drinks or anything out into the dining room, they just hit the table number, hit go, and it goes directly to the table.”

From there, servers remove the plates for diners, and the robot returns to right outside the kitchen doors.

The robot can operate for 12 hours before needing to be charged.

The facility has been using the robot about a week as part of a month-long trial period. If all continues to go well, they will keep on leasing the gadget and consider the option to add more.

“The servers were a little skeptical in the beginning, but now they really like the robot,” Wilkie explains. “The residents love it; it’s very entertaining for them. I constantly look around and see them with their phones out and sending video to their family.”

Sensors around the device cause it to stop or maneuver around objects in its path.

Management says the cost of the robot is about half that of a human server, and stresses the machine is not taking a job from someone.

“If we had the staff, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” says Burks. “This was all predicated on having staffing shortages. I’ve received the question ‘boy, that’s an awfully expensive tray’, but it’s not. When you look at the increase in wages that have gone up over time [and] when you’re paying benefits as well. Then, the robot isn’t getting exposed to the virus so it’s not having to sit out two weeks or a week, the robot is here. To use it, it’s cheaper than an year’s salary of having to pay someone.”

To their knowledge, Brandon Oaks is the only business in the valley using a robot like this as part of its workforce.

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