The next time you call the front desk for a newspaper, toiletries, or room service, you might receive your items from a new kind of hotel employee: a robot. In recent months, a number of U.S. hotels, including properties by Hilton and Starwood, have added robots to perform simple customer service functions. There’s even an entire robot hotel in Japan

One of the most popular of these hotel robots designed to take items to guests is Relay, a 3-foot-tall bot that resembles a slimmed down R2-D2. The robot is made by Savioke (“savvy oak”), a start-up in Silicon Valley. We recently asked Adrian Canoso, the company’s cofounder and design lead, what robots do now and what he thinks they’ll do next.

What does this trend of robots in hotels mean for the average traveler?

It means different things to different people. On the property side, robots allow hotels to offer more services than they had offered before. On the guest side, it means another way to connect with a particular hotel, another way to personalize the travel experience.

What are some of the things these robots can do?

What they can do and what they’re doing right now are two different things. Most hotels are using the robots to deliver small items—newspapers, toiletries, towels, room service items, that sort of stuff. Items many concierge staffs can carry by hand. One hotel has a Starbucks program that lets guests call down and place an order at Starbucks and then receive their coffee via robot a few minutes later. Right now the largest items are almost the size of a full grocery bag.

How does each robot know where to go?

When we install a robot into a site, we make a map of all the floors, and we annotate where the room numbers are. We also define where the elevators are. Once we do all those steps, a robot can figure out how to get from Point A to Point B on its own. Our robots specialize in autonomously navigating open spaces. We don’t have to put markers or receivers anywhere. Our robots understand where they are in space by using a LIDAR, which is what you’d see on a Google autonomous vehicle.

How often do they accomplish their missions?

Our success rate is close to 100 percent. It usually takes a robot 3 to 4 minutes to reach a guest room. 

How does a robot hand over the items to a guest?

When the robot gets to a guest-room door, the guest receives a phone call. (Our robots can’t knock on the door because they don’t have arms.) The phone call is a recorded message that informs you the robot is outside with your delivery. When you go to the door, you can see the robot through the peephole. As soon as the robot senses you’ve opened the door, it unlocks its lid and presents the items. The bin with the items is nicely lit. It’s sort of like the experience of opening a jewelry box.

What are some of the hotels that have the robots right now?

There are a few, all in California: Aloft Cupertino, Aloft Silicon Valley in Fremont, Crowne Plaza Silicon Valley/San Jose in Milpitas, Holiday Inn Express in Redwood City, and the Grand Hotel in Sunnyvale. The most recent additions are Hampton Inn & Suites San Francisco-Burlingame-Airport South in Burlingame and Embassy Suites by Hilton Los Angeles International Airport North in Los Angeles.

How much do the robots cost hotels?

We do this as what we call a “robot-as-a-service” model. We charge in the low thousands per month and that includes support, hardware, and maintenance. For a hotel, it’s really a low entry point financially.

In what ways do you predict hotel robot duties will expand and/or change in the next two years?

We’re focused on delivering things that matter to people in a safe, delightful, and expedient way. Over time I’m sure we’ll make robots that can carry larger items. There are a lot of kiosk-style applications out there. We also feel that we can take on the challenge of doing more complex deliveries and interactions with people as opposed to having robots that just stand still. We’re here to make robots that are relevant and mobile. If we do that, we’re confident they’ll have a positive impact on people’s travel experiences.

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