Friday, January 25, 2008

Home Robots Grow In Popularity

Joel Garreau says people are falling in love with their Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners.

This week, women all over America -- and not a few men -- are cooing and doting over their surprise hit Christmas present. They swoon when it hides under the couch and plays peekaboo. When it gets tired and finds its way back to its nest, sings a little song and then settles into a nap, its little power button pulsing like a beating heart, on, off, on, off, they swear they can hear it breathe.

It's as cute as E.T., as devoted as R2D2, more practical than a robotic dog and cheaper than some iPods.

iRobot's Roomba is a big seller.

More than 2 million of the machines, which range in price from about $150 to $330, have been sold. The day after Christmas, a Roomba was among the top 20 items in's vast home-and-garden section, ahead of the top-selling iron, the top-selling blender, the top-selling coffeemaker and the top-selling George Foreman grill. In Housewares, different models were Nos. 1, 6 and 8, ahead of all the other vacuum cleaners, including the DustBusters.

Automation of boring house work is a wonderful thing. I especially want full automation of food preparation. Picture a bunch of bins that you'd load with noodles, rice, and other basic dried goods. Plus, imagine a bunch of small spice bins. Then an automated system like an miniaturized warehouse robot would take small amounts from each bin and put the ingredients into a pot which would first be removed from a standard position on a rack and placed on a stove. If the automated system needed to, say, take an unopened bottle of ketchup from a shelf it would put an RFID tag on the bottle and put the bottle in the refrigerator after removing some ketchup. So when will we get the kitchen cook robot? 10 years? 20 years?

An MIT Technology Review article on the future of robots reports home robots surpassed industrial robots in number in 2005.

Domestics. If the latest figures are to be believed, 2007 will be the year of the robotic revolution. According to the latest Robotics Survey, published in October by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, domestic robots now outstrip their industrial cousins. In 2005, the number of domestic droids exceeded the one million milestone, a figure that is now expected to rise into the several millions over the next few years. Christensen believes that next year South Korea will likely come out with the first truly multifunctional home robot. The South Korean government is committed to becoming a leader in robotics and has announced a plan to have a robot in every home by 2013.

The industrial robots cost more and deliver more economic value. But the trend is clear. Home robotics has started to become a part of the present and not just a science fiction dream about the future.

While the term "Roomba" has achieved popularity in the mainstream culture iRobot also makes some less well known mass market floor cleaning robots. The Scooba cleans hard floors such as found in kitchens and bathrooms. The Dirt Dog cleans nails, bolts, and other small debris from shop floors. Scooba can clean just about any floor that a mop can clean.

Scooba is designed to safely clean all sealed hard floor surfaces, including tile, linoleum, marble and sealed hardwood—wherever you would typically use a standard mop. Scooba uses water and a specially designed Clorox® cleaning solution that is safe and effective on all sealed hard floor surfaces.

I can see one problem with these devices: Pets! My late great Australian Shepherd thought all wheeled devices were things to bite at. If I was pushing along a lawn mower that was not running he'd try to bite the wheels. So if you have a dog at home with access to the insides of the house and you set the Roomba or Scooba to do cleaning while you are at work what is Fido or Fluffy going to do when one of these devices starts cruising around? Maybe the simple solution is to start it running as one goes out the door to walk the dog.

How quickly will we get a taller device that'll vacuum couches and chairs or dust window sills and other ledges? The liability risk would be much higher for such a device. Plus, it would be a tougher problem to solve since the device would more in more dimensions with more axes of motion. The same difficulties hold for something tall enough to clear the dishes from the table and put them into the dish washer with the table scraps removed.

Spiralling costs and an aging population make health an area that cries out for robotic automation. Another Technology Review article reports on efforts to provide better physical feedback from robots to surgeons.

Robotic surgical systems have become a staple in operating rooms, advancing the field of minimally invasive surgery. These computer-assisted tools help surgeons conduct more-precise in-depth procedures. The robots are often praised for their dexterity, advanced visualization technologies, and mechanical stamina. But there is one important aspect the robots are missing: a sense of touch, also known as haptics.

A Johns Hopkins team is working on the haptics problem.

To develop such technology, Okamura and her team are working with the da Vinci surgical system made by Intuitive Surgical; it's the only robot approved by the FDA for conducting surgical procedures. The da Vinci is particularly useful in laparoscopic surgical procedures, such as the removal of the gallbladder or prostate. It also makes it possible to perform minimally invasive procedures for general noncardiac surgical procedures inside the chest.

Surgical robots will serve as aides to human surgeons in much the same way that automatic pilots do work for real pilots. Surgical robots will eventually do subsets of steps within longer surgical procedures. For example a surgical robot could probably be designed to show graphically what they plan to do for a sequence by overlaying an animation over an already sliced open area of the body. Then a surgeon could approve of that sequence and the robot could perform the sequence more rapidly and accurately than a human could.

We are moving beyond the stage where robots were used only in controlled and therefore relatively simple factory environments. The home and the surgical operating table are both much more complicated environments with more unplanned and unexpected elements that can show up. Recent advances in robotic vehicles demonstrate the potential for robotic systems to handle complex environments outside of factories. The success of robots in the mass market will provide revenue flows to fund the development of more robotic products. We should expect the introductions of new kinds of home and workplace robots in the next few year. Robots are a growing part of our everyday lives.

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