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Archive for Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Tech Check: Sales pick up for robotic cleaners

February 14, 2006

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As I got up off the recliner after the Super Bowl, I saw more pizza crumbs tumble off my chest.

Uh-oh.

Somebody's going to have to clean this up, I thought, looking down at the sausage and hamburger bits all over the carpet.

I looked over at my wife. She seemed too comfortable.

As I went to get the vacuum cleaner, I wondered if it was time to get a personal robot.

Roomba and Scooba

I'm not alone in such thinking.

More than 1.5 million house-cleaning robots have been sold by iRobot, a company founded in 1990 by "roboticists" from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The company makes four different models of its circular Roomba Vacuuming Robots, which clean carpets and hardwood floors. The company also recently came out with a similar robot that scrubs floors, called the Scooba (about $400).

"Everyone is watching that company very carefully because it has sold over a million and a half," said Arvin Agah, a Kansas University associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science who teaches robotics classes.

Audio: Arvin Agah, KU associate professor who teaches robotics

"The question that everybody is waiting to see is, 'Did they sell it because of its effectiveness or because of its novelty?' " Agah said.

IRobot says the Roomba will find dirt under furniture, avoid stairs and automatically return to its docking station to recharge.

I asked Clayton Kimmi, a flooring sales specialist at The Home Depot in Lawrence, how well it worked.

"It doesn't actually have a vacuum motor, but it has, like, a beater brush," Kimmi said. "So it basically goes around and knocks what's loose and picks it up, kind of like a dustpan."

The Roomba Vacuuming Robot cleans carpets and hardwood floors. A flooring sales specialist at The Home Depot in Lawrence says the robot "basically goes around and knocks what's loose and picks it up, kind of like a dustpan." The Lawrence store has sold between 50 and 100 in the past three years.

The Roomba Vacuuming Robot cleans carpets and hardwood floors. A flooring sales specialist at The Home Depot in Lawrence says the robot "basically goes around and knocks what's loose and picks it up, kind of like a dustpan." The Lawrence store has sold between 50 and 100 in the past three years.

The Roomba has sensors that keep it within the boundary areas that you set up, Kimmi said.

"And it will clean in that area until it doesn't detect any more dirt or its battery gets low," Kimmi said. "And when that happens, it goes and plugs itself back into its charging base."

Home Depot sells the Discovery model (about $280), which tends to be popular among shoppers around the holidays, he said. The local store has sold between 50 and 100 in the past three years, he said.

Not convinced

SuperTarget in Lawrence sells a basic red model (about $149), but there hasn't been much demand, said Kent Johnson, executive team leader of hard lines.

"I think people are inquisitive and curious, but I'm not sure that they've bought into it quite yet," Johnson said.

But he knowns more household robots are inevitable.

"Technology never ceases to amaze me," Johnson said. "Looking at what has come in the last 10 years, (it makes) sense that in some way, shape or form, they're going to be handling the menial type of task that we do every day."

Specialists coming

Besides the Roomba, I also found a number of other floor-cleaning robots. Most were pricier than the Roomba.

They included Zucchetti Orazio floor cleaner ($1,299), the Karcher RC3000 Robocleaner ($1,495), the Electrolux EL520A Trilobite ($1,799), the Friendly RV400 Vacuum ($1,599) and the CleanMate 365 ($124).

But, home robots have a way to go before they can help clean dishes.

KU's Agah predicts it will be awhile before consumers have servant robots - ones that can do a multitude of household tasks, like clean dishes, make beds or take out trash.

The difficulty is in creating an artificial intelligence that can recognize the various types of houses we live in. The robot must be able to travel on carpet, on hardwood and move up and down stairs.

For that reason, some people are working on specialist robots that do one particular task.

"It's easier to design and build them, versus a robot that just listens to you and does whatever you ask," Agah said.

Asahi's beer bot will open and pour a drink at the push of a button.

Asahi's beer bot will open and pour a drink at the push of a button.

A beer-bot?

Agah told me of a couple of robots he had heard of being developed. One would serve as a golf caddy. Another type is a robotic nurse that interacts with patients and delivers medicine in nursing homes.

He laughed when I told him about one I found on the Internet called the beer bot.

Asahi, a Japanese beermaker, announced recently it would be giving away 5,000 of the personal bartending robots as part of a promotion in Japan. The robots look something like R2D2 from Star Wars. The beer bots hold a six-pack of cans and can pour a perfect mug of beer each time.

It seemed like it could be a Valentine's Day robotic romance - a beer bot to start the party and a red Roomba to clean up.

But Agah said the beer bot seemed more like a fancy can opener than a robot.

He said it didn't seem to quite fit the definition of a robot, which is "an agent embodied in the physical world that can sense and act."

Intelligent agent

Starting up the vacuum cleaner, I heard a groan and smelled some oily electrical smoke. I knew from experience a belt had broken.

I quickly opened the back door and set the vacuum outside to keep the smoke smell outside.

My dog, Bailey, ran up to the door. I let her in and I went back to my recliner to ponder robots.

I watched Bailey walk into the living room.

She detected the pizza crumbs. Maneuvering around the furniture, it took her several tries, but she ate every last crumb.

Then she stopped near my feet, laid down, closed her eyes and went into recharge mode.

"Good dog," I said, scratching her head.

I wonder if I could train her to pour a beer?

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