This primer on Personal Robots is meant to be a quick introduction of the trend towards personal robotics – a trend that will have a significant impact on our lives in this and future centuries. I’ve previously authored primers on other emerging trend and technology topics…for those check out my category “Primers”.
Little by little we are all starting to share more of our space with robots as prices drop and new innovative technology makes its way into new robotic products that are designed to make our lives easier, more fun, and safer. Yes, adoption of personal robots is beginning to ramp up. My house now has two Roombas (one upstairs, one downstairs). While I still like to use a traditional vacuum as I know the carpets get cleaner, my wife and kids love the Roombas as they can turn it on, leave the room, and let it do its job while they do other things. Both my parents and my in-laws also have Roombas and they absolutely love them.
The concept of a machine that performs tasks normally done by humans has captured the imagination of people throughout the ages. The term robot describes a machine that performs programmed tasks normally performed by humans, while robotics refers to the design, construction, and use of robots. A robot does not need to be in human form, nor does it need to be controlled remotely.
The toy market is where allot of the action is at these days. Robotic technology is increasingly being embedded into all sorts of toys from dinosaurs to plush toys. Entertainment robots have expanded in capability and fallen in price as well. There are robotic toys for entertainment, such as the Pleo, the Prime-8 Gorilla, and the Lego Mindstorms line of toys robotic companions.
However, there is a significant personal robot market waiting to be developed beyond just toys and entertainment…a wider range of task robots are already on the market like Paro the harbor seal, that comfort the elderly. Household robots that perform chores, provide entertainment and monitor home security have become increasingly prevalent over the last few years. Personal Robots are being used for tasks like vacuuming. There are also robotic lawn mowers, duct cleaners, surveillance systems, and alarm clocks.
I found the following video that provides an overview of some of the latest consumer robot enhancements. While I found the video a little dry and the focus is more on entertainment robots, it does gives you a feel for what is new in 2010.
As evidence that there is a market for consumer and household robots beyond just toys, the iRobot Corp published a press release in January 2010 that indicated it has sold more than 5 million Roombas (home robot vacuums) worldwide since 2002. As I mentioned above, I have two of those Roombas in my house alone.
Projections about the overall market opportunity for personal robots range dramatically. According to a 2009 report by ABI Research, by the year 2015 personal robot sales in the U.S. will exceed $5B. The report, Personal Robotics 2009: Task, Security & Surveillance/Telepresence, Entertainment and Education Robot, and Robotic Components Markets Through 2015 found that the personal robotics market will quadruple from 2009-2015, when worldwide shipments will be valued at $5.26 billion. ABI defines personal robots as those robots that perform tasks for consumers that usually have something to do with security, a simple household chore, entertainment, or education. ABI’s report singles out North America as the largest market for personal robots right now, followed by Japan (where the culture embraces robots) and the rest of AP.
Market Drivers / Inhibitors
The growth in the market for personal and household robots will be driven by a number of factors.
- Toys/Entertainment: The toy/entertainment mass market, with its lower price point, will continue to grow and is the place where many companies experimenting in robotic technology will have success in the short term.
- The 4 D's: Consumers will be interested in buying robots that can help them do any task that has one of the ‘4D’ components – Dirty, Dangerous, Dull, and/or Difficult.
- Better technology: Improvements in hardware, software, and design allow for enhanced robot applications.
- Reduced prices: Personal robots prices will continue to drop as 1) component prices drop and 2) demand for robots increases
- Skills shortages: As skill shortages happen, robots can assist and even boost productivity.
Inhibitors to rapid growth include cost justification, the current economic environment, limited performance, and fear, uncertainty, and doubt factors related to the use of robots.
Major developments in microelectronics, (sensors/actuators), analytics software, and computer technology have led to significant advances in robotics. The underlying technology in a robot contains some of all of the following components.
- A physical device capable of interacting with its environment. This would include sensors on or around the device that are able to sense the environment and give useful feedback to the device.
- Systems that process sensory input in the context of the device's current situation and instruct the device to perform actions in response to the situation. This would include operating systems and application software.
- Services for robots are similar to other emerging application areas (consulting, implementation, and maintenance), but the services are customized for specific application areas (security, cleaning, healthcare, etc.).
Advances in military and commercial robots continue to trickle down to the consumer personal robot market. As the
market for innovative components grows (e.g., laser rangefinders in the
military and automotive industry), we’ll see continued advancement of robotic applications
in the consumer market.
The main personal robot market segments that have thrived in recent years are toy/entertainment robots and vacuum cleaner robots. I expect these segments to continue to continue to grow and thrive in the coming years. Overtime, I expect to see more robots designed for the elderly and dependents to make their way to the market. And I also expect to see more home security robots coming to the market.
The excitement surrounding the consumer robot market is in what lies ahead in terms of innovations. We should expect innovations that enable increased precision, better controls, lower costs, and improved technology. Not only will new robots have more computing power, but they will have improved knowledge based systems, speech recognition, wireless capabilities and improved power (fuel cells). All these enhancements will greatly enhance robot use.
Other anticipated developments include:
- Telepresence applications making their way to personal robots, allowing remote users to interact with the robot’s environment.
- Future personal robots will be able to interact with their owners, express basic emotions, and help make decisions.
- Advanced software in the area of analytics and artificial intelligence will result in improved robot decision making capabilities
- Advancements in machine to machine communications will lead to robot networks, multi-robot systems, and remote/distributed robotics.
- Long term, as nanotechnology enhancements come to market, we will see a new breed of Mini, Micro, and Nanobots
There should be no doubt in our minds that the future looks bright for personal robots. They will have a significant impact on the lifestyles of our future generations. Personal robots will improve our productivity by taking care of everyday chores. They will improve our safety. They will help us make better decisions.
Eventually personal robots will become our constant companions. Along the way, future generations will have to resolve a whole set of new issues relating to personal robots, including security/privacy issues, robot rights, robot/human ethics, and social/cultural issues.
Companies to Watch
There are hundreds of companies that manufacture robots and robot components. Many of these companies are focused on the commercial or military robotic industry. Some large consumer-oriented electronic companies like Honda, and Electrolux are attempting to address the consumer robot market. However, most robot companies are small businesses and start ups. Here’s a list of various companies focused on the consumer market.
- Belgium Robotic Systems – Robotic Lawnmower
- Husqvarna – Sells a line of robotic lawnmowers
- Precise Path – Has introduced the RG3 Robotic Greens Mower for golf courses. Long term plans includes a fleet of robotic vehicles designed to tackle for every aspect of golf course conditioning and maintenance.
- Zucchetti – sells a robotic lawnmower called the Robotica
Companionship / Entertainment
- Bossa Nova Robotics – Is focusing on innovative robotic toys, like the Prime-8 gorilla and the Penbo Penguin
- GeckoSystems – Based in Atlanta, GA, it sells the CareBot™ line of Mobile Service Robots for the elderly care market
- Hitachi’s EMIEW2 – Is a prototype mobile service robot with that can conduct basic services.
- Mistubishi’s Wakamaru – A robot designed to provide companionship to elderly and disabled people.
- NEC’s PaPero – is a prototype entertainment/companionship robot designed to interact with humans.
- AIST’s Paro – This robot looks like a seal and has been designed to provide animal therapy to patients and the elderly.
- robosoft – Based in France, the company has introduced its Kompaï robot for home elderly use.
- Toyota – Has a research arm focused on developing future robot systems titled Toyota Partner Robots designed to interact with humans and perform basic services.
- Yujin Robotics’ iRobi – iRobi is an entertainment/companionship robot that will interact with humans and perform basic task.
- Fujitsu’s enon – a prototype service robot designed to perform various tasks, including security, surveillance, guidance/assistance, and transporting items.
- Rotundus – Sells the GroundBot security robot, a remote-controlled sphere with embedded camera that can move silently inside and outside a building
- Spykee Spy Robot – A remote controlled security robot packed with features, including camera, microphone, VOIP phone, flashlight, sound effects, and mp3 reader.
- WowWee Group Ltd – Hong Kong based company offers the Rovio Wi-Fi Enabled Robotic WebCam, a household security robot
- Anybots Inc. – Telepresence solutions for robots
- Barrett Technology, Inc. - Core technology includes improving flexibility in robotic arms and hands
- CoroWare, Inc - Expertise in personal telepresence and mobile robotics
- dRobotics – Online retail store providing a wide variety of robot components and solutions.
- General Vision Inc – Develops and sells image recognition systems (e.g. the CogniMem neural network chip) that can be applied to robots
- Gostai – Is focused on developing and applying artificial intelligence capabilities and software platforms to robots.
- Hitec RCD – Distributor of component parts for robots
- Honda’s Asimo – Honda has a long history of researching robots, with a focus on Asimo and related humanoid technology.
- Karto Robotics – Is developing software that can provide high accuracy navigation, mapping, and exploration functionality across a broad range of mobile robot platforms.
- KumoTek LLC – Based near Dallas, Texas, KumoTek is a robotics design and manufacturing company focusing on consumer and service robots
- MobileRobots Inc – Designs and manufactures autonomous mobile robotic systems, including the Motivity guidance and control technology.
- OLogic Inc – A design company focusing on the design and packaging of internal components (sensor, processor, and mobility) and devices for robotics.
- RoadNarrows Robotics – A Colorado company developing open-interface hardware and software robotic solutions. Focuses on research and education markets.
- Readybot – Based in Silicon Valley, this company is focusing on developing an easy-to-use, modular, off-the-shelf, robotic work platform. One of their target markets is robots for the elderly.
- Speecys Corporation – Based in Tokyo, the stated main focus of Speecys is to develop a humanoid robot and the surrounding system that enable the robot to download content via the Internet so that it can provide entertainment and perform various tasks.
- Surveyor Corporation – A California based developer of small robots, robot controllers, and other robot components for research and education.
- White Box Robotics – Sells the 914 PC-BOT platform to researchers, academics, and developers. It is a mobile robot with an embedded PC complete with inputs for keyboard, monitor and mouse
- Willow Garage – Is a team of experts in robot design, control, perception, and machine learning that develop hardware and open source software for personal robotic applications.
For More Information
Well, that’s it…a basic introduction into the emerging world of personal robots. I think we can only attempt to imagine what the world of robots will be like in 100 years from now. There is no doubt in my mind that the impact will be significant.
I hope you enjoyed this primer into personal robots. For primers into other emerging trend and technology topics…for those check out my category “Primers”.