October 22, 2002 Decades after "The Jetsons" and "Lost in Space", you could be forgiven for thinking that the robotics revolution has been slow to take shape. But things are changing fast with the arrival of a range of single and multi-task robotic devices with real practical uses for everyday living are beginning to emerge in the consumer marketplace. Evolution Robotics, NEC, Sanyo and Husqvarna are just some of the companies bringing home robotics to the marketplace so that humans can hand-ball those mundane tasks like mowning the lawn or answering the door to the battery operated help.
The ER1 is a promising open-source "all-rounder" from Evolution billed as the first multi-purpose personal robot system that can be trained to do a range of useful tasks around the home and office. Transforming a laptop into an autonomous robot, the ER-1 is capable of capturing and sending images, guarding your home while you are away by transmitting images when it hears a loud sound, reminding you to take the roast out of the oven. The expandable ER1 can also handle advance tasks like getting a beer or paying the pizza delivery guy when optional extras like the "Gripper Arm" and wireless modules are added to the Robot Control Centre "brain".
The ER1 can also stand outside your office door and tell visitors you are in a meeting or be programmed to direct guests at a function to a particular seating area.The Advanced Vision and "hearing" system allows for images and sound levels to be recognised as well as captured so the robot can be trained to react independently in certain situations. For example the ER1 can be used to keep the neighbours happy by telling the family dog to "Be quiet!" if it barks too loud. The ER1 is available online for US$599 (unassembled) and the Gripper Arm extension costs US$199. Take an interactive "test drive" of the ER1 and view video demos of the robot in action at www.evolution.com.
While having an undersize Dalek as your butler may seem a little strange at first, swinging in your hammock while the lawn is kept constantly trimmed without any effort on you part is not a difficult concept to embrace at all.
The Husqvarna Auto Mower is capable of maintaining a lawn area of between 1200 and 1500 square metres completely autonomously once the low-current perimeter wire is installed. The boundary wire is stapled or buried in the ground to stop the Auto-Mower from leaving the lawn and wandering into the neighbour's vegie patch. Available in either a battery or solar powered version, the Auto-Mower parks itself on the charging unit when its power is low by following a search wire, or in the case of the solar model, stop moving to allow time for the sun to recharge its batteries.
Virtually silent and able to work in any weather conditions, the Auto-Mower is designed to continuously cut in a random pattern. This keeps the grass at a consistent height and clippings are fine enough to be left on the lawn as mulch, avoiding the need to use a catcher. Crash sensors enable the mower to automatically change direction when it encounters solid objects like trees. Available from Husqvarna dealers for US$2500 (including the charging station but not installation).
Inside the home the days of manual vacuum cleaning are looking decidedly numbered. On of several robotic floor cleaners becoming availble, iRobot Corporation's "Roomba" Intelligent FloorVac cleans all household floor surfaces including carpet, tile, wood and linoleum by navigating itself navigates around the floor in a spiral pattern until its bumper comes into contact with an object or a wall. Once it has made contact, sensors allow the device to clean along the wall until it begins another spiral or makes a straight run across the floor to reach another section of the room.
The Intelligent FloorVac is the first automatic floor vaccuum available in the U.S and costs US$199.95. Dyson have also produced a robot vaccum cleaner in the UK .
The latest in Robot Guard Dogs from Sanyo and Japanese robotics firm tmsuk, the Banryu, will arrive in 2003 with higher-speed and flexibility than the prototype unveiled earlier this year. Modelled on the concept of an ancient reptile with a futuristic twist but looking more like a canine version of tthe Nissan Cedric, the Banryu can travel at 15meters/min and navigate through tight spaces. It keeps a watch on your home and alerts when anything unusual is happening via a range of on-board sensors including an "virtual nose" that provides the ability to accurately detect odours like smoke. The robot's artificial sight and hearing systems include real-time transmission of video in MPEG4 format and extensive voice recognition capabilities.
Though entertaiment rather than task based, the latest incarnation of Sony's AIBO Robot is also attaining a level of intelligence that will produce important practical applications. One key feature is the ability to recognise its owner's face, name and voice. The robot responds affectionately every time it hears its owner's voice, name, or "sees" their face via the in-built camera and AIBO will find its own way to the re-charging station whenever it feels "hungry". The Recognition software will be released on a 16MB Memory Stick, giving AIBO a threefold boost in image storage capacity. Available in the US from November for US$99 the new AIBO robots will carry a suggested retail price of US$1,299.