Robots in the Home

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2230, 2004-07-23, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 20 and 22) and their website.

During the past few decades, the computer invasion of our homes has continued to gain momentum. However, that invasion has always been conducted by human power — typically with the computer consumer carrying their new purchase into the home with happy anticipation. We have yet to arrive at a point in the history of human progress when computer devices, in the form of robots, are invading our homes under their own steam. Thankfully, the apocalyptic future portrayed in the Terminator movies is much further down the road.

But we are certainly wasting no time in making it all possible. For instance, as a result of the tremendous progress made with X10 technology, it has become much easier for people to wire up their homes, and automate the control of more systems within their homesteads. It was not that long ago when hardware hobbyists began controlling their homes' lighting, heating, and cooling systems from their computers. Now, it's almost commonplace. How long will it be before HAL refuses to open the garage door?

As microprocessor-based technology becomes more powerful, affordable, and embeddable, we will undoubtedly see increased mechanization of the home itself. Yet this is not the same phenomenon as the use of domestic robots, which are mobile. A home network, whether wireless or based upon Ethernet lines, is static, in the sense that it has no moving parts. A robot careening through the kitchen encounters far more obstacles, both technically and literally.

Nonetheless, during the past few years, we have seen some first steps towards the use of robots in the home. Given the difficulties of developing robots that can easily negotiate stairs, the first domestic robots created and sold have been limited to performing what can be done by a wheeled device, and not requiring climbing or other coordination. Naturally, vacuuming floors was the first application, as it is simple — at least, relative to other household chores.

This article will focus on robotic vacuums, as they are the type of domestic helpmate most likely to be seen by readers during the next few years. While discussions of proof-of-concept home robots can be fascinating, few of us can afford such products, as they are usually priced in the thousands of dollars. In addition, some of the most interesting ideas are still on the drawing boards in product development labs.

Vacuum vs. Broom

Ask the citizens of any industrialized country, which chores in the home they dislike the most, and perhaps the top two "favorites" will be: doing laundry, and vacuuming. Both tasks have admittedly been made less arduous through the wonders of science. After all, pushing a Hoover, or being dragged around the living room by the same, is easier than wielding a mean broom. But we Americans are always looking for ways to further minimize physical exertion; thus was born the automatic vacuum.

There is some debate as to which was the premier vacuuming robot. Some argue that iRobot's "Roomba Intelligent FloorVac" was the first one made generally available with a price tag that allowed it to be purchased by the average American consumer. The battery-powered Roomba looks like a tiny silver and black flying saucer, and is priced accordingly — anywhere from $179.99 to $199.99 (not to be confused with $200).

What's interesting is how the Roomba navigates in such a manner as to cover all of the carpet in a room. The design of the device is likely derived from the Urbie robots created by iRobot for the U.S. military, and intended for detecting mines. The manufacturer probably figured that if the device can successfully navigate a minefield during a war, it may have a fighting chance within the typical child's bedroom.

The Roomba moves about its environment in a largely random fashion, backing up and changing course when it encounters an obstacle — detected by the high-tech method of bumping into the obstacle. The device also changes course when it hits its "virtual wall", which is an invisible electronic beam that can be placed across any open doorway, to prevent the unit from escaping and presumably terrorizing the neighborhood, vacuuming someone else's place, or bumping into other Roombas and forming a union.

The Roomba has sensors that help it to follow walls and other objects on the floor. But what happens when the floor disappears, such as at the top of some stairs? According to the manufacturer, the built-in "Cliff Avoidance Sensors" detect the stairs, giving the slow-moving robot a chance to turn away from the abyss. (If only they could invent something similar for the stock market.)

MechVac vs. Dust Bunny

The other contender for the prize of first-to-market is the Trilobite, manufactured by Electrolux, a veteran of the vacuuming business. While the Trilobite serves the same purpose — sucking up unwanted dirt and spare change — its navigation system is more advanced than a sensitive bumper and a random walk. It utilizes ultrasound to detect its surroundings, similar to that of a bat (although consuming far fewer insects per outing, at least for most homes). The Trilobite transmits an ultrasonic signal, which reflects off of furniture, TV-hypnotized spouses, and other stationary objects. The return signal is received by microphones inside the unit, and used to form an internal map of its environment.

The Trilobite calculates the size of a room by following around the walls. After it is finished mapping the room, it automatically begins to clean. According to Martin Hedström, a product manager at the Electrolux plant in Västervik, Sweden, "It is unlike any other vacuum cleaner. Many people become very attached to their Trilobites, and treat them like family pets." Hmm, these people may need to get out of the house more often.

A third option for the consumer with money to burn and dust to spare, is the Karcher RC3000 Robocleaner, available for a mere $1495. One interesting feature of this product, is that as soon as its battery starts running low or the dirt receptacle becomes full, the unit returns automatically to its "Base Station". Parents inform me that they see similar behavior with their penniless teenage children, though with less interest in doing domestic chores.

Dirt Bags of the Future

Despite the technological advances demonstrated by the products mentioned above, we are clearly in the earliest days of domestic robots. For instance, a Consumer Reports reviewer noted that the Roomba under evaluation vacuumed some areas of the floor countless times, while completely missing other areas. Even these high-tech, automated vacuums need room for improvement (no pun intended).

Because of the difficulties in automating climbing and other physical activities requiring refined coordination and balance, it is likely that the next area of application will be wheeled robots that can move around the room and dust surfaces of heavy objects, and possibly pick up and clean small, lightweight objects. But for now, you may want to keep your expectations low, to avoid disappointment. It will be some time before domestic robots are making a big impact, aside from running into walls.

Copyright © 2004 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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