A robot in your future?

Not unless you plan to live for a really, really long time.

Joe Engelberger formed the first robotics company in 1957, sold the first industrial robotic arm to General Motors in 1962 and even demoed his Unimate robot on The Tonight Show in 1966 in order to popularize the idea that robots would one day be part of our daily lives.

Today, we've got iPods, X-boxes, PDAs, GPS, DVDs, DSL, Wi-Fi, smart phones, hot spots, laptops and TiVo. But where are all the robots? Shouldn't we all have robots mowing our lawns, cleaning our houses and catering to our every need by now?

"I'm surprised and disappointed it hasn't happened,'' said Engelberger last week at the RoboBusiness Conference in Cambridge, Mass. Now retired, "the father of robotics,'' spoke to an overflow crowd, exhorting the audience of young entrepreneurs to make his dream of an elder-care robot (which he first wrote about in 1989) a reality. "Please, let's do it,'' he said.

Today, you can count the number of successful consumer products on one robotic hand. There are the robot vacuum cleaners - Roomba is the most popular, with sales of 1.2 million units. And there's Robosapien , a $100 toy humanoid robot made by Hong Kong-based WowWee (not to be confused with Chinese networking vendor Huawei) that walks, dances, burps and moves its arms.

Engelberger seemed dismayed. He dismissed the toy robot out of hand. "I don't think walking has anything at all to do with robots. And it doesn't have to look like a human. It needs to have a purpose,'' he said.

He wasn't all that impressed with Roomba , a low, round appliance that can get under couches and attack dust bunnies. "You get one for your mother-in-law, sit around, have a few drinks, get some laughs and put it away in the closet,'' he said.

Bits vs. atoms

Engelberger and others at the show drew a sharp contrast between the explosive growth of the computer industry over the past few decades and the relative stagnation of the robotics field. While venture capitalists were lining up to fund computer start-ups, Engelberger, despite his impressive résumé, was unable to get financing for his robot that would help people live at home rather than go into a nursing home.

The robotics industry today is about as far along the road to widespread commercial acceptance as the PC industry was in the 1970s. The differences are that robotics don't have an equivalent of Moore's Law, the industry hasn't settled on standards, there's not much in the way of venture capital money and there's really no viable commercial application - killer or otherwise, said Paolo Pirjanian, chief scientist at Evolution Robotics .

On the show floor, several vendors displayed small demo robots that used sensors to navigate the show floor - literally technologies in search of an application. Unfortunately, the economics are such that it's extremely difficult to build a true robot that can interact with its environment at a cost that would attract consumers, Pirjanian said.

The vacuum cleaner is a good example. Electrolux tried to market a robotic vacuum cleaner called Trilobite that uses ultrasound to get around, but at $1,800 consumers weren't biting. The Roombas and e-Vacs are affordable - between $150 and $250 - but they lack the sophisticated capabilities that one would want in a robotic vacuum cleaner, such as obstacle avoidance, the ability to go up and down steps, and the ability to know where it had already vacuumed.

"Is there a robot in your future?'' Pirjanian asked "Yes, but we need to redefine the stereotype of the robot that Hollywood has created for us.'' Robotic technology will be embedded in other products, he predicted, adding that we won't see stand-alone, multi-function robots anytime soon.

That's not to say there wasn't a serious buzz of excitement at the show. Helen Greiner, who co-founded iRobot 15 years ago when she was 23, is leading the charge for the next generation of robotics pioneers. Her company sells the Roomba and the PackBot, a ruggedized, 25-pound, tank-like robot that can fit in a soldier's backpack and can be tossed into a building, for example, where its video camera will search for the presence of enemy soldiers. Individual PackBots are being used in Afghanistan and Iraq to search inside caves and other dangerous places, and Greiner said the next step would be to use swarms of networked PackBots to search an area for enemy soldiers, mines and chemicals.

Richard Lepack, CEO of Frontline Robotics , said small, specialized robots could be used for physical security, to patrol the perimeter of a commercial airport or to keep tabs on what's happening inside a bank at night, for example.

Greg Doherty, director of product and market development at John Deere, said the farm equipment maker is interested in building unmanned vehicles that use GPS to run farm equipment along precise paths. The company also is working with iRobot to build an unmanned military vehicle that is expected to go into early production in 2006.

But Doherty pointed out that there are huge technological barriers to overcome. For example, in early trials of a robotic lawn mower, Deere found that the robot perceived tall grass as a brick wall. He said that technologies like real-time modeling of the environment, the ability to manipulate objects, the ability to avoid obstacles and voice recognition simply aren't there yet and won't be for decades.

Bottom line: If you're looking for R2-D2, check out the next Star Wars movie.

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