As the return to office debate rages on around the world, a fleet of robots was unleashed in a cutting-edge office building near Seoul, South Korea, ready to assist human co-workers with coffee requests, lunch deliveries, and package retrieval. Located in the town of Pangyo, a tech hub about 14 miles south of the country’s capital Seoul, a building called 1784 was launched by South Korean tech giant Naver as a “testbed” office building with 100 service robots. “A place where humans work in harmony with robots,” Naver states on the building’s website. Along with a host of smart tech features, the building will be home to self-driving robots with 5G network capabilities and even the world’s first elevator just for robots.
Robots in the office aren’t necessarily new. Since the late 1970s, there have been robots that deliver mail in many large corporate offices around the country. But lately, they have been emerging in other real estate sectors. Robotic construction has been touted as a huge area for growth over the next several years. In multifamily buildings, robotic furniture made a splash as a way to reconfigure small spaces quickly, and in industrial and manufacturing settings, robotics are more in demand than ever, fueled by labor shortages and a desire to keep workers out of harm’s way. But in the office, the question of whether we will see widespread adoption of robots mingling among office workers is one without a clear answer.
While robots are starting to pop up in office buildings in Asia and Europe, in the US, it hasn’t been as popular. However, with more incentive than ever these days for landlords to upgrade and innovate their properties in order to compete for tenants, could this be something to set them apart?
I, Office Robot
There’s a recurring plot point in the FX series The Americans involving a hulking, wheeled mail robot that roamed the hallways of a 1980s-era FBI headquarters. The device was featured in several episodes throughout the series, which ran for six seasons before ending in 2018. If you haven’t seen the show (spoiler alert), the robot ends up getting bugged by deep-cover KGB spies in order to listen to conversations between FBI agents. While The Americans was loosely based on true events, it was a fictional portrayal of Russian spies and American federal law enforcement during the height of the Cold War. But it turns out the mail robot was a real thing. Originally launched at the offices of Sears, Roebuck and Co. in the late 1970s at what is now the Willis Tower in Chicago, “Mailmobiles” was one of the first robots used in offices in the U.S. By the mid-1990s, around 1,000 Mailmobiles were being used in corporate and government offices in the U.S. and Canada, according to a Baltimore Sun article on the devices from 1996.
The 600-pound mobile robots were developed by Lear Siegler Inc., the same company that invented the Learjet. Purchasing a Mailmobile could cost between $22,000 and $80,000 in the 1990s, depending on the machine’s features. Besides traversing hallways and delivering mail, some devices could open doors and summon elevators. While the robots were beloved by children of office workers and given cheeky nicknames like “Luke Carpetwalker” and just simply “Marvin,” they broke down easily and weren’t always able to detect when a person was in their path. More than 25 years later, the kinds of robots workers might see in their offices will probably look quite different.
Over the last few years, the use of robots in office buildings started to become more widespread after many office owners chose to deploy cleaning robots at their properties. Deploying a cleaning robot, which can cost between $40,000 and $60,000 each, solving two problems at once for many landlords: staffing shortages and enhanced sanitization protocols. The devices were used in government buildings around the country to keep facilities sanitized during the height of the pandemic. Last year, Coretrust Capital Partners deployed a 90-pound cleaning robot in its downtown Los Angeles office building that disinfects common areas and meeting rooms around the 48-story building by emitting UVC radiation. The company said at the time it was leasing three robots for $15 a day each.
Using robots for more practical functions like cleaning and sanitizing has been popular, but they have also been more given more creative tasks. Last year, as building owners ramped up amenities and perks to bring office workers back, owner Tishman Speyer partnered with startup Clockwork to offer robot manicures in its tenant lounge at Manhattan’s 30 Rockefeller Center. When Google unveiled its $9.5 billion investment into its office and data centers across the country, privacy robots were one of the features set to be rolled out in its workplaces. The devices can be called to a worker’s desk to deploy a cellophane bubble that expands around a worker’s desk. It was designed to provide workers with more privacy when taking a call or jumping on to a Zoom meeting.
How robots will fit into existing buildings is something the real estate industry is looking at closely. Global architecture design firm Gensler recently undertook a study on designing spaces within the workplace and beyond to accommodate a future with robots, or Autonomous Moving Robots (AMRs) as the study calls them. In an office building, where developers are driven by ROI and every square foot counts, underutilized spaces could be used for security or assistant robots, but it would require higher ceilings in the property, the study found.
One of the most important factors to consider when deploying robots in an office building is circulation, a key challenge for office buildings and buildings of any kind. The movement patterns of AMRs can depend on their specific functions and capabilities. With robot technology expected to continue to change in the future, developers will need to design spaces with flexibility in mind and increase the size of spaces like hallways and waiting areas of elevators and escalators. While some companies like Google are already deploying robots in their workplaces, office landlords are weighing their pros and cons as well. “Developers are actively assessing the value of adding AMR-based amenities to their properties,” the study’s authors wrote. The most common functions of these kinds of robots are security, cleaning, and delivery tasks.
Globally, the robotics sector is valued at around $25 billion, and that number is expected to grow to between $160 billion and $260 billion by 2030, according to Boston Consulting Group. It’s a diverse sector with more than 500 companies making products for a number of industries, including the medical field, construction, and manufacturing.
As robotics technology continues to find its place in the office sector, there have been challenges in adding machines to workplaces. South Korean firm Naver has so far invested $550 million into its robot business, but executives are taking a cautious approach to future expansion into commercial markets. “This will be a long-term task,” Naver Labs CEO Seok Sang-ok said. The company’s signature robots, called Rookies, operate on 5G networks. While superfast, 5G has been challenged by regulatory hurdles for new technology like autonomous driving, patchy network rollouts, and routinely needed upgrades. And there’s also the fact that 5G was originally created for phones and needs to be optimized for robots. “No one can do it, but we are doing it,” a Naver Labs executive told Reuters.
Robot sales have been hitting record highs over the last several months, mostly led by auto manufacturers and e-commerce companies, but with a growing number of building owners and corporate offices rolling out robotics, it seems more likely than ever that robots will have real staying power in the workplace. Robots have come a long way from just delivering mail, as advances in technology have led to all kinds of robots that vary in size, shape, and function. Recent studies have shown that office workers are accepting of robots in an office setting, with some even saying it would be an improvement. However, the high costs to buy and lease robots and issues with network connectivity could hold more widespread adoption of robots back. While the test building in South Korea and Google’s use of robotics in its offices are indicative of things to come, it may take some time to work out the kinks.