Robots - Man's New Best Friend?

House cat meets iRobot Scooba. At first intrigued by the movement, the cat eventually retreated. Credit: Michael Kanellos/CNET
Michael Kanellos/CNET
This story was written by CNET's Jonathan Skilling
Sylvia the German shepherd is learning to live with robots.

The 6-year-old, curious canine was recently adopted by the Tambascia family in Brockton, Mass. There was one problem: a trio of house-cleaning robots - two Roombas, and one Scooba - already lived there.

"She didn't know whether to eat the robots or run," Joy Tambascia said. "She still tries to eat them or attack them on occasion - kind of how dogs react to the regular vacuum."

If Sylvia's conundrum sounds like a topic more worthy of Oprah's magazine than Scientific American, you're right: the robot of today and the near future is a lot more mundane (and probably a lot more useful) than the robot of science fiction.

For many people who own them, iRobot's Roomba is a regular vacuum cleaner. Roughly the diameter of a hubcap and about as thick as dictionary, it crisscrosses a floor autonomously, recognizes the difference between carpet and hard surface, senses stairs, and when battery power runs low, it automatically locates and returns to its docking station.

The Roomba is typical of commercial robotics in the early 21st century: There is no white-faced Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" who would desperately like to learn to whistle. Don't expect chatty C-3POs, intrepid R2-D2s, or killer Terminators. Instead, robots are humble devices that do menial labor, and they're on the verge of becoming household fixtures.

"People have such great expectations of robots because of what they see in the movies," said Jim Wyatt, director of Kablamm, a company in Reading, England, that helped develop a toy robot called MechRC. "People have this expectation that robots will be able to see you and hear you."

Robots performing relatively simple tasks have been creeping into society for years, of course. They've been a fixture of assembly lines and laboratories, such as stationary mechanical arms piecing together cars and handling pharmaceuticals. Nowadays, industrial robots comprise a roughly $18 billion annual market, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

There are going to be a lot more of them, too, as they move into homes, hospitals, classrooms, and barracks. NextGen Research has estimated that the worldwide market for consumer-oriented service robots will hit $15 billion by 2015. (The market research firm plans to issue a report next month with updated figures.)

Many expect big growth in the number of home and entertainment robots being sold to consumers. From 2000 to now, something like 5 million such robots have been sold, "and we're not done with this decade yet," said Paolo Pirjanian, CEO of software developer Evolution Robotics. "In the next decade, I really think we could see another order of magnitude - 5 million a year."

Keep in mind, though, that the housecleaning won't likely be done by a multitasking Rosie from "The Jetsons."

"You're not going to just have a robot in the home that does everything, but you're going to see many forms of robots, just as you don't have a single appliance in your home that washes your dishes, washes your clothes, and cooks your food," Tandy Trower, general manager of Microsoft's robotics group, told an audience at the RoboBusiness conference in Boston in April. "I think you're going to see a variety of robots that are designed for very specialty functions."

In a three-day special report, CNET News will take a look at the growing world of commercial and do-it-yourself robotics. We'll check in with the top robotics researchers in academia, as well as with hobbyists showing off their projects at this weekend's Maker Faire conference in Silicon Valley.

We'll describe an industry where the management of simple tasks and goals is just maybe paving the way for the grand visions of science fiction. But first, the floors need to be cleaned.

Robots in the home

Today's consumer robots are most likely to be found in the toolshed or the toy box, and there's no getting away from the dominance of iRobot. The company has staked an early claim in several key markets, including the defense sector, and has taken hold of the public's imagination--several years ago already, "Saturday Night Live" did a mock TV ad for a Roomba-inspired feminine-hygiene product.

In 2008, the Bedford, Mass., company had $307 million in revenues, with a good balance between its consumer division and its government and industrial division. On the consumer side, the Roomba is the chief revenue driver - indeed, over the years, more than 3 million of them have been sold.

Beyond the Roomba vacuum cleaner and the Scooba floor washer, the company also offers the Dirt Dog, a Roomba variant for sweeping up work areas; the Looj, for cleaning gutters; and the Verro, for cleaning pools. (There are even a couple of Roomba Pet Series models designed to clean up pet hair and kitty litter.)

"We can vacuum. We can vacuum well, and scrubbing is coming along, and so forth," iRobot CEO Colin Angle told CNET News in an interview in April. "But there's so much more a robot could do, as far as helping you come home to a house that is exactly the way you want it, with no need for you to go and do these maintenance types of tasks."

The company is cagey about what it might offer next, though Angle sees plenty of opportunities.

"There's the lawn mower, there's cooking, there's windows, there's more stuff going on in the bathroom with your tub, and doing laundry, folding laundry, putting stuff away ... shoveling the driveway," Angle said. "Once we get manipulation on the robots at consumer price points, those are all very real, very doable sorts of things."

The robotic lawn mower is already being done by a variety of companies, including Husqvarna and Kyodo America. At this year's Golf Industry Show, a company called Precise Path unveiled the nearly $30,000 RG3 robomower, designed for keeping the greens well-trimmed - a job that requires meticulous attention to detail.

That's obviously out of the reach of consumers, if not necessarily the local country club, but even the more modest machines aren't cheap. For instance, Kyodo's LawnBott - which can be programmed to work autonomously and can return on its own to its docking station--starts at about $2,000.

Finding the right price point

Price could be a bugaboo for the consumer robotics market. That $2,000 or so for a LawnBott would also get a high-end rider mower (an inexpensive push mower would cost $200 or less). By comparison, iRobot's Verro 500 pool cleaner lists at $999, the various Roombas range from $129 to $549, and WowWee's Rovio mobile Webcam is $299 - just a little pricier than a Nintendo Wii.

If people are unwilling to spend big on home and garden robots, they're likely to be even stingier for toy robots.

"In toys," said Kablaam's Wyatt, whose MechRC sells for $599, "price is king."

Some high-profile robotic toys, in fact, have already succumbed to penny pinching. In April, Ugobe, the maker of the robotic dinosaur Pleo, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The company appeared to have problems even before the recession hit, despite the positive media coverage for an animatronic dinosaur toy packed with sensors that was intended to be as charming as a real pet. The launch in late 2007 came a year behind schedule and with a price tag - $349 - that had ballooned by 40 percent.

Ugobe CEO Caleb Chung blamed a global credit crunch that hit Pleo buyers hard. "We were selling them," Chung told the Idaho Statesman, which covers the Eagle, Idaho, area where Ugobe was located. "But they were sitting in crates in Europe, Australia, Asia, Russia, and the Middle East."

There were construction challenges as well. Ugobe's design team, for example, struggled for months to fit a battery into the middle of the body - the very same part of Pleo that had to be able to pivot for a realistic gait. And some consumers complained that the battery the company settled on was difficult to install and had a surprisingly short charge.

Perhaps the most iconic toybot of the last decade was Sony's Aibo, a robodog that had an enthusiastic following.

Aibo was no one-trick product - it took pictures, played music, reacted to its owner's commands, and even spoke. But in early 2006, as Sony went through a bout of belt-tightening, it eliminated its robotics division. That spelled the end for the $2,000 Aibo, more than 150,000 of which had been sold since 1999.