When Ellen Williams walked past an unmanned McDonald’s in a strip mall one evening last year, she thought it was a joke. A robot at a fast-food restaurant? No, says Williams, who is active in the robotics community and has two children who are young enough to be fascinated by robots and wonder what they could be doing in an automated restaurant setting. But after nearby surveillance footage showed the robot’s identity— McDonald’s introduced them in February of this year—and with a colleague, she realized this was not a fantasy. Like a car with a high-tech driverless system, the robot now stands at a counter at a McDonald’s in El Dorado, N.C.
The fast-food restaurant in El Dorado is a test for a new kind of automated voice-activated ordering system. It started as an idea some two years ago among the senior leaders of the fast-food chain’s R&D department. The team of designers and engineers saw a potential to “upgrade automation,” says Mark Dowling, the senior vice president and managing director of McDonald’s innovation business unit, and argued that by ordering their meals by entering a PIN code, the business would be spared the cost of building a robotic system. The idea, he says, was to “simplify menu options” and save on labor costs, though they also hoped the robots would increase order frequency. The technology to make automated ordering systems a reality is nothing new: McDonald’s rivals Wendy’s and Burger King already use software that allows customers to “order via smartphone, e-mail, or any web browser,” says Williams. However, the company wanted to test the idea on a broader scale.