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R2-D2, where are you? The robot's slow evolution

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Friendly Robotics' Robomower is a lawn-mowing robot featuring six different mowing heights  


By Zillah Bahar

(IDG) -- Scientists have fantasized for decades about a future when robots will take over mundane household chores and give us more leisure time. Yet the types of robotic devices introduced to the market so far have typically been more about novel entertainment than practical uses.

But, the consumer market for robotics products appears to be in the process of changing for the better, though it's a slow transformation to be sure. Thanks to lower manufacturing costs and the improved performance of mass-produced computers, a number of small companies are starting to offer consumer robots that can clean and maintain a household. The problem, for the moment at least, is that these products aren't likely to attract consumers who aren't already jazzed about robots. So far as performance and price are concerned, they're still no match for their conventional counterparts.

One company that has enjoyed some early success is Friendly Robotics, an Israeli firm that last year began selling a lawn-mowing robot called the Robomower. The battery-powered device accomplishes its task by traveling randomly over the lawn, which means it takes a lot longer to get the job done, but at least it frees its owners from spending Saturday afternoons pushing a noisy, smelly gas-powered machine. The Robomower stays within the lawn's perimeters by sensing a wire installed a few inches in from the lawn's edge that gives off a low-power radio signal. The sensors on the robot pick up the signal and command the robot to return to the lawn. According to Cindy Love, Friendly Robotics' president and COO, 15,000 of the 80-pound robots have sold worldwide for $795 each.

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A number of other companies are also setting their sites on the consumer market. Probotics, a Pittsburgh company that already sells a vacuum-cleaning robot, is making a more serious play with a $995 roving surveillance product called Spy-Cye, which enables users with a Web-connected PC to remotely monitor their home or workplace via the robot's onboard video system. And Somerville, Mass.-based iRobot intends to start selling a similar home surveillance robot next year for about the cost of a laptop computer.

Despite the potential commercial promise of these devices, their appeal so far has been limited primarily to robot enthusiasts and select wealthy consumers. Experts have noted that cheaper, conventional lawnmowers operated by humans still achieve more precise and uniform results than robot versions, and vacuum-cleaner robots tend to have trouble navigating around carpet fringes, cats and stairways. Even iRobot President Helen Greiner acknowledges that a surveillance robot can't take the place of a household alarm system.

And the bar is high, says Henry Thorne, CEO of Probotics. "If you want something for the [average consumer], it has to be flawless and reasonably priced, and that's very, very tough."

From a technical standpoint, the crux of the problem is that these robots are not equipped to comprehend three-dimensional space. Poor locomotion is another complicating factor, says Illah Nourbakhsh, assistant professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "No [mass-produced] robot can follow you around stairs or curbs," he says. "It's hard getting around without legs in the human world."

Joe Engelberger, a pioneer in the U.S. robotics industry, believes that companies developing robots for the consumer market have been pursuing a flawed business strategy by offering single-function products that can be used for a few hours a week, at best. For a robotic device to be cost-effective, he says, it must be capable of doing many household chores so that it is useful around the clock.

Some experts believe these performance issues can be resolved within the decade. Engelberger even argues that a multitasking robot that can provide cleaning services and transport the frail elderly within the home could be market-ready in little more than two years, using existing technology. Unfortunately, so far as the ordinary consumer is concerned, the price of such high-precision robots won't be right for 25 years, Nourbakhsh contends.

"We do believe we will eventually have R2-D2," Probotics' Thorne says. But the question is, will it do windows in our lifetime?








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