Robots predicted to join family in home or serve in public setting

| Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

A robot called mObi senses when someone is nearby. It rolls gracefully on a single ball, navigating around people and furniture, and even talks a little.

This robot someday might be used in a home or public setting — placed in a museum, for example, to glide over and provide information to a visitor admiring a painting, said Sarjoun Skaff, chief technology officer at Bossa Nova Robotics in the Strip District.

Like robotics companies worldwide, Bossa Nova is fine-tuning mObi for eventual consumer sales. Skaff believes robots could guide travelers through crowded airports, speaking their languages, or help shoppers find items in stores and provide product details.

Machines such as the 4-foot-tall mObi, sleek and nearly silent while in motion, have a future with families, Skaff says. But he acknowledges: “We are still working on the home bit.”

Researchers predict that within 10 to 15 years, personal robots will become more commonplace, helping people keep their homes safe and perform household chores. Robot sales to consumers could quadruple to $6.5 billion by 2017, according to New York-based ABIresearch.

“We're going to see a lot more activity around personal robots,” said Philip Solis, a research director with ABIresearch. “A lot of the sensors you'd need in a robot are in smartphones right now.”

“Telepresence” robots that travel through rooms to check on things are a next step toward more intelligent machines. Romotive Inc.'s Romo is a simple version; the $150 remote-controlled robot with wheels carries an iPhone.

“The first consumer-valuable robotic services will show up before the end of this decade, from present-day vendors of washers and dryers,” predicts Frank Tobe, a researcher who publishes The Robot Report.

Smart appliances could provide “hamper-to-hamper service — dirty in, folded out,” Tobe said. He believes companies will offer practical home-use robots to help elderly or physically challenged people.

Single-purpose robots, such as Mass.-based iRobot Corp.'s vacuuming Roomba or Looj 330 gutter sweeper, which caused a stir at this month's Consumer Electronics Show, “brought the promise of C3PO and R2-D2 into the home,” said Maurice Leacock, a product manager with iRobot.

The company has sold more than 8 million cleaning robots.

The Looj, priced at $300, is “exciting to people because it opens the imagination to what else can be done,” Leacock said.

iRobot tested a telepresence robot, built on its advanced Ava platform, at five hospitals. InTouch Health, a telemedicine company, worked with iRobot on the device, which moves through corridors on its own. These RP-VITA robots soon will be available for lease at about $6,000 a month.

In a home, “we see a world in the future where there will be multiple robots to perform single tasks,” plus a central robot to communicate with them, Leacock said.

Willow Garage of Menlo Park, Calif., sells its PR2 robot, equipped with arms, to university researchers and technology companies such as Samsung at a base price of $280,000. The machine can fetch drinks, fold towels and perform other tasks.

“It's a little bit of Wall-E,” spokesman Tim Smith said.

RE2 Inc. in Lawrenceville, which focuses on robotics for defense uses, donated an $850,000 Robotic Nursing Assistant that can lift a patient to the University of Texas at Arlington's Research Institute. The institute is working on technology to help wounded veterans, older people and workers who lift heavy objects.

Such research is under way worldwide.

In Switzerland, the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Zurich in March plans to introduce Roboy, a human-looking robot with soft skin.

Hector, a robot being built in Europe, is “far ahead of anything we have ongoing here,” said Tobe, who advocates for public-private investment to advance robot research.

Some say the path ahead for robots remains unclear.

Henry Thorne recalls his short-lived venture with Cye, a robot he made in 1998 to transport items and vacuum a room. He priced it at $799 and sold 400, which was not enough to sustain a business.

Thorne later became a founder of 4Moms, a Strip District child products company that makes the mamaRoo, a moving robotic seat to soothe fussy infants.

“We sell 10,000 mamaRoos a month,” he said. “My experience with personal robots is that they lack a raison d'être, a reason to be.”

When Thorne looks at robots such as mObi, “I ask, ‘What's it for?'” He'll consider the market again when someone provides a good answer.

Siddhartha Srinivasa, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, cites nagging questions on how to make advanced robots with a low enough cost, say $5,000, that are useful in a home. Robots perform well in orderly labs but might not in a messy household, Srinivasa said.

Many makers of consumer goods sell products with robotics technology, such as lawn mowers with sensors. Advanced robotics technology could become part of everyday appliances, Srinivasa said. A refrigerator could sense when the milk supply runs low and notify the homeowner by text message, for example.

Today's consumer robots range from $50 toys to pricier humanoids that can close a garage door but mostly are for entertainment, said Dan Kara, president of robotics services company Electra Studios Inc. of Upton, Mass. The latter devices more commonly are found in Japan and Korea.

“People are paying $5,000 for something that doesn't do that much,” Kara said. Robots for home use “seems to be a market in search of itself.”

Kim Leonard is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. She canbe reached at 412-380-5606or

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy