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The domestic robot is not as far fetched as it sounds. Right now you can buy robotic pets, vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers, but is this the dawn of a new age, or the beginning of the end for mankind?   



In spite of the very clear warnings contained in movies like Terminator and a recent Fosters beer advert, scientists around the world seem hell-bent on developing humanoid robots that will inevitably enslave or destroy us all.


You can relax, for a while at least. Robotics is still very much in its infancy and even the smartest of today’s androids has the intelligence of a not very clever ant. Moreover, with a few honourable exceptions most have a Dalek-like inability to climb stairs or even negotiate small steps – well worth remembering if you are ever pursued by a malevolent mechanoid!


Whilst the walking, talking mechanical maid or manservant of sci-fi movies is still some way off robots are starting to find their way into our homes (that’s how it begins, mark my words….). At the moment most domestic robots fall into one of three fairly broad categories: entertainment, security and simple repetitive tasks like vacuuming and mowing the lawn.


We can thank Sony for the bizarre notion of an ‘entertainment robot’. Aibo (short for artificial intelligence robot or ‘pal’ in Japanese, take your pick) is a small dog-like creature that first appeared in prototype form in 1998. It was originally meant as a demonstration of Sony’s technical wizardry but such was the demand for it that it was swiftly turned into a commercial product.


Early Aibos did little more than plod around avoiding the furniture and play with a plastic ball in a cutesy way, and they would develop a personality of sorts as they interacted with their human owners but it was still pretty much a toy, albeit a rather expensive one at around £2,500. Current models, like the ERS-220, which sells for around £1300, is a good deal more sophisticated. As well as operating autonomously it can be programmed to react to sound and movement, take pictures using a built in video camera and communicate with a PC using a wireless LAN connection; can the robotic guard dog be far away?


Aibo spawned a veritable menagerie of rival mechanical pets of varying abilities and it’s not difficult to understand their appeal when compared with the real thing – no food to buy, no smells or mess and no walkies -- but several companies have taken the idea one stage further. Mitsubishi recently announced a metre-high wheeled robot called Wakamaru, due to go on sale next year at a cost of between £6000 and £10,000. It’s targeted at the elderly and housebound and is billed as a combination nurse, friend and security guard. As Wakamaru trundles around it keeps watch for intruders and will alert family members, or call a doctor it senses its owner is in difficulty. Images from the on-board camera can be transmitted to a mobile phone and it can speak and conduct a simple conversation using a vocabulary of 10,000 words, reminding its owner to take pills, go to bed or wake up or simply ask ‘are you all right’, presumably after having scared the pants off them during a night time encounter…


We can but hope that the depressing prospect of robots as surrogate pets and companions will never amount to much but it’s possible that robots will have a genuinely useful role to play in home security. But they need to be a lot scarier if they are to deter burglars, though, which may explain why Sanyo chose to make its house sitting robot Banryu look like a large lizard. This four-legged creature, which weighs in at a hefty 40kg and stands 700mm tall is due to go on sale later this year at an as yet unspecified price. Banryu, which means ‘guard dragon’ in Japanese can move at up to 3 metres per minute, climb over small obstacles and gaps. It has sensors to detect heat and smoke and it sends an alert message to the owner’s phone if it senses anything untoward. 


Thus far most robots have had four legs, wheels or tracks, which rightly suggests that vertical bipedal mobility – walking on two legs – is incredibly difficult for machines. At least it used to be, the first independent walking robots started to appear around seven years ago, the most famous one being P2, later to become Asimo, developed by Honda. Asimo, which looks like a small man in a spacesuit is just over a metre tall, weighs around 43kg and can climb and descend stairs with impressive agility. The latest version, P3 is 1.6 metres tall and 130kg, even so its abilities are limited, it can be programmed to understand simple hand gestures and movement but as for putting away the crockery or hanging out the washing, forget it! Asimo and its close relatives are still very much in the development phase and not something you can go out and buy, unless you happen to have a little over £100,000 to spare, which is what Honda is asking for a year’s rental!


Sony has also been working on a walking robot and it recently showed the latest prototype, called the SDR-4X. This has the ability to walk on irregular and polished surfaces and adapt its posture. It has twin colour cameras, which gives it a perception of depth and distance as well as image recognition, it responds to sounds and embedded wireless LAN allows it to communicate with a PC. It can also sing, dance and react with other robots; put a few of them together and you can stage your own slow-motion football tournament.


Dr Robot is another bipedal walking robot that’s being promoted as a future consumer product that could end up in the shops quite soon, though there are as yet no details on launch date or price. According to the spec it’s equipped for video and audio surveillance, it plays chess and is connected to the wider world by wireless LAN and the Internet so it can check traffic reports, stocks and shares and travel reservations; just watch out that it doesn’t plot the demise of humankind with LAN equipped fridges and toasters… Fujitsu has also developed a walking robot; HOAP-1 is not intended for domestic consumption though, it’s a development platform for robotic technologies and at just 48cm tall it’s probably a bit too small to do anything useful around the house.


However, it’s wheels rather than legs that motivate the last and to date, the most successful group of household robots. These are the single task machines, designed to vacuum floors and carpets or mow the lawn. It’s a relatively undemanding task, requiring only basic obstacle avoidance and navigational abilities. In fact the biggest problem for manufacturers is power. The motors in vacuum cleaners and mowers consume a lot of energy, which means that they require heavy batteries, which also means a trade-off between efficiency and running time. Most models can only operate for relatively short periods between charges and the challenge for the engineers has been to enable the more sophisticated models to find their way back to their charging stations and plug themselves in.


For many years robotics was a technological backwater and apart from a few specialised areas, such as manufacturing and remote handling in hazardous environments there was little or no interest in developing robots as consumer products. However companies like Sony, Honda and Mitsubishi have demonstrated that not only does a market exist, there are real-world applications and that the holy grail of robotics – a two-legged, autonomous humanoid robot -- is now a distinct possibility. But this really is just the beginning and it may just be that this will be seen as the golden age of robotics, when we were still in control…




We tend to think of robots as relatively large or at least human-scale machines but there is a rapidly growing branch of the technology devoted to creating microscopic devices.


Molecular robotics is an established area of nanotechnology research, devoted to developing ways of building molecular-sized machines that one day, may even be capable of self-replication. But why would anyone want an invisible robot? In addition to manufacturing useful products, such as faster and more powerful computer chips, nano robots could in theory have applications in medicine. Tiny machines that can be injected into the bloodstream could operate in parts of the body inaccessible or too dangerous to reach by conventional means. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction but it is happening right now. Scientists have already managed to create simple machines and mechanical devices and the course of future development is now well understood, even if the technology necessary to achieve them is some still years down the line.












Aibo -- http://www.aibo.com/

Dr Robot -- http://www.drrobot.com/default_flash.asp

HOAP-1 -- http://pr.fujitsu.com/en/news/2001/09/10.html

SDR-4X -- http://www.sony.com.au/aibo/about/article.cfm?articleid=1838&auth=true




Amigobot -- http://www.amigobot.com/amigo/home.html

Banryu -- http://www.sanyo.co.jp/koho/hypertext4-eng/0211news-e/1106-e.html

Maron-1 -- http://pr.fujitsu.com/en/news/2002/10/7.html

Patrolbot -- http://robots.activmedia.com/patrolbot/




Eureka -- http://www.eureka.com/whatsnew/robotvacupdate.htm

Dyson DC06 -- http://www.dyson.com/

Koala -- http://diwww.epfl.ch/lami/robots/K-family/vacuum.html

Roomba -- http://www.roombavac.com/

Trilobite -- http://trilobite.electrolux.se/index.asp




Lawn Nibbler -- http://www.robotic-lawnmower.com/

Robomower -- http://www.robotic-lawnmower.com/





Ó R. Maybury 2003, 1002








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