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Reem, from the Abu Dhabi company PAL Technology, makes his debut at Idex this year. Lee Hoagland / The National
Reem, from the Abu Dhabi company PAL Technology, makes his debut at Idex this year. Lee Hoagland / The National

Robot waiter arrives in Abu Dhabi

Robotic porters, ushers and waiters are taking the leap from science-fiction movies to commercial reality. An Abu Dhabi company is in talks that could lead to the sale of 20 robots after the successful debut of its Reem model at this year's Idex exhibition.

DUBAI // It may sound far-fetched but robots could soon be taking your luggage to your hotel room or showing you around the shopping centre.

A company in the capital is promoting a new, all-purpose service robot and says it has already attracted interest from a wide range of businesses.

"It can work in a hospital, in a hotel, in a museum or an airport," said Sheraz Siddiqui, the project director for PAL Technology, which owns the robot's developer PAL Robotics. "There are as many applications as you can think of."

The company has spent three years and more than US$50 million (Dh183.6m) developing the robot Reem in Barcelona, along with a range of prototypes. The latest model, released last year, is the first to be commercially available.

The price has not been made public but Mr Siddiqui said it would be "several thousand dollars". The company hopes to reduce the price to make it more competitive.

PAL Technology is in talks with several large local companies, which could lead to it supplying up to 20 robots by the beginning of next year.

Reem was piloted this year by the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (Adnec) as a guide for visitors at the International Defence Exhibition.

Adnec suggested at the time that if Reem proved popular, it would expand the trial to other events.

A spokesman for Adnec declined to comment on whether it was involved in negotiations with PAL Technology.

At the research and development facility in Spain, experts are customising a version of Reem that could carry objects in its hands.

A key challenge lies in getting the robot to recognise objects before calculating how best to pick them up, said Jan Jonckheere, the business development manager of PAL Robotics.

"Not all glasses look the same," Mr Jonckheere said. "There are millions of different types of glasses and trays. The challenge with the programming is in helping the robot to recognise objects before calculating how to pick them up."

But he said a working model would be ready in a year.

Once ready, the next generation of Reem robots could have wider applications in the hotel industry in serving food and beverages to clients. They could also be used as hospital porters.

Even now, Reem is easily customised. It has a touch screen on which visitors to trade fairs or shopping centres can select their destination before being led there by the robot. A camera in the back of the head checks whether or not the person is following.

Reem can also do things a human cannot, such as communicating in dozens of different languages.

"We don't see robots as replacements for humans," said Mr Jonckeere. "But these robots can allow a hotel or exhibitor to do things which they can't currently do."

According to a report by the South Korea Ministry of Knowledge and Economy last January, by 2016 as much as 85 per cent of global robot sales will come from service robots.

But it will still be some time before robots enter most homes - at least beyond the robotic vacuum cleaners that have been on the market for several years.

"At the moment it's probably too expensive for average people," said Mr Siddiqui. "It will probably take another 10 years before it becomes common."

mcroucher@thenational.ae

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