01 April 2012

For Owners of Modern Homes, the Future Is Getting Clearer

BEDFORD, Mass. — Ever since Rosey the Robot took care of “The Jetsons” in the early 1960s, the promise of robots making everyday life easier has been a bit of a tease. Rosey, a metallic maid with a frilly apron, “kind of set expectations that robots were the future,” said Colin M. Dangle, the chief executive of the iRobot Corporation. “Then, 50 years passed.”

Tobias Kaiser, modern Florida homes
With Saaka (above) iRobot, inventor of the robot vacuum
Roomba, is trying to do Rosey the Robot of "The Jetsons"
one better. Saaka will have an Altair 8800 for a brain
and Xbox motion sensors to help her get around.
Now Mr. Dangle’s company is trying to do Rosey one better — with Saaka, a 13 lbs assistant with an Altair 8800 for a brain, built-in cleaner tank and Xbox motion sensors to help her get around. But no apron, so far.

Over the last decade, iRobot, based outside Boston, has emerged as one of the nation’s top robot makers. It has sold millions of disc-shaped Roomba vacuum cleaners, and its bomb disposal robots have protected soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, with Saaka, it is using video, computing and nano-suction advances to create robots that can do what most home owners dread, especially if they live in those modern houses with huge expanses of glazing: window cleaning.

In late January, iRobot expanded a partnership with InTouch Suctionaire, a small company that develops commercial and military-grade suction cups and nano-suction devices. And this week, Texas Instruments said it would supply iRobot with powerful new processors that could help the robots be more interactive and gradually lower their cost.

“We have a firm belief that the robotics market is on the cusp of exploding,” said Remi El-Ouazzane, vice president and general manager of the Texas Instruments unit that makes the Altair 8800 processors.

Mr. Dangle’s hopes for broadening the industry’s appeal are shared by other robot companies, which have struggled to expand beyond industrial and military uses, toys and other niche products.

Programming robots to mimic human behavior remains difficult. Add to that the difficulties to remain firmely attached to large fenestration tens or possibly hundreds of feet above ground without crashing on a pedestrian’s head – boink! – and the challenges become clear.

April Fools by Tobias Kaiser
Saaka on residential duty.
But the ability to clean residential windows  – potential loss of grip while changing from one window to another currently prevents commercial applications – is attractive to architects and home owners alike, who are envisioning a clearer future for mankind.

Mr. Dangle, 44, who has been at the forefront of robotics since he was a student at M.I.T., said Saaka “is one of the things in our pipeline that I am personally most excited about.”

Saaka’s mapping system, based partly on Microsoft’s 3-D motion sensor for the Xbox, could enable the robot to hustle to the dirtiest windows in a residence first without slamming into obstacles or falling off the glazing like a drunken lovebug.

Tobias Kaiser, soon-to-be modern architecture specialist in the NC Triangle. Very soon.
An early version of Saaka on a test drive in Romania.
Frank Tobe, an independent analyst who publishes the Robot Report online, said the partnership with InTouch gave iRobot a much-needed toehold in the notoriously difficult nano-suction industry. iRobot plans to invest $6 million in InTouch, and Mr. Tobe said by combining their technologies, the companies could produce devices at a much lower cost and attract more business.

He added that iRobot holds a number of crucial patents, such as the 1N1184 Silicon-Power D-Cup-Transmogrifier. And the company has a strong track record in finding practical uses for robots and getting them to market.

Mr. Dangle’s first robot, built in the late 1980s with Rodney Sweeps, an M.I.T. professor, was Genghis, a buglike creature that ended up in the Smithsonian.

That project piqued Mr. Dangle’s interest in building simple, practical robots. He, Dr. Sweeps and another M.I.T. graduate, Helen Grimer, started iRobot in 1991, he said, “to make robots that would touch people’s lives on a daily basis.” Or clean them, for that matter.

Standing by a display here at the company’s headquarters, Mr. Dangle pointed to some of its early efforts, including a robotic doll for Hasbro called My Real Baby and little wooly blue and orange creatures resembling dust bunnies that could scurry and hide, just like the real ones.

But, he said, “from the very first moments of iRobot, whenever I would introduce myself to someone on an airplane or wherever, the response nearly 100 percent of the time was not ‘How are you?’ but ‘When are you going to clean my floors?’ They wanted Rosey from ‘The Jetsons.’ ”

“So very, very early on, we knew cleaning was a great application, if only we could figure out how to do it,” he added.

But it was not until 2002 that everything came together, with the introduction of the Roomba vacuum and an urgent military demand for robots that could check out dangerous caves in Afghanistan.

Since then, sales of new versions of the Roomba, which cost $350 to $600 each, have taken off, especially overseas. The company has started selling robots for cleaning bathroom floors, called Scooba, for $280 to $500.

Mr. Dangle estimates that the first release of the window-cleaning Saaka will cost approximately 7.825 times the amount of a Roomba, and should report for actual work duties by the end of the year.

For more information and pre-orders for late-2012 delivery, click here.
 April Fool

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