CES - Robots pick up socks, patrol the house, take photos

No less a personage than billionaire Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, has publicly stated (in the January 2007 issue of Scientific American) that robots are the next big thing, and that the current state of the robot industry resembles the PC industry 30 years ago.

Judging from what can be seen at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) currently under way, he has a point about the 30-year parallel. As was the case with PCs in 1977, there are a handful of small vendors with real products -- enough for there to be a robotics pavilion -- plus unbounded plans, dreams and uncertainties.

Of course, on hand was the most successful American robot maker, iRobot, which had its own booth outside the robotics pavilion. It was showing its Roomba autonomous floor vacuum and Scooba autonomous floor scrubber. Both are thick disks twice the size of a dinner plate that navigate across a floor, cleaning as they go, until their batteries run low, and then they return to their charging station. The company claims sales of more than 2 million units. (It also makes scout and bomb disposal robots for the military.)

At CES, iRobot announced iRobot Create, a version of the Roomba with added I/O ports and the vacuum assembly removed, which a robot developer can use as a platform for a larger design. Pricing starts at $US129.

Senior researcher, Bryan Adams, was showing videos of Create robots that were assembled in days, thanks to Create solving the mobility part of the designs. These included a unit that could pick up socks from the floor, and another that took its direction and speed from the input of a hamster in a plastic sphere atop the unit. Adams explained that the Create kit has 32 built-in sensors, a cargo bay with threaded mounting holes (where the vacuum cleaner used to be), a scripting language that can be controlled from a PC and compatibility with Roomba accessories.

Of course, robotics would not be an industry if the main player did not have competition -- and there was. A few aisles away in the Sands exhibit hall, South Korea's Microbot was showing another disc-shaped floor-cleaning robot, one that does both sweeping, vacuuming and mopping, called the UBOT, according to Microbot's marketing manager, Sangbin Park. With its combined functions, it was about twice as tall as the Roomba. But what made it unique was its reliance on networking -- and not the Wi-Fi kind.

Basically, the UBOT is intended to clean wood floors that are striped with laminated barcodes that are visible only under ultraviolet light, Park said. In normal light, the floorboards appear to contain rows of faint, square watermarks. Currently, the UBOT and its floorboards were used in new construction, and the buyer got the flooring directly from the flooring maker, laminated at no extra charge. Laminations for existing floors would be available later this year, he said.

The advantage of the laminated floor was that the robot could be given precise commands in terms of what room to clean, leading to faster, more efficient operation, Park said. It could operate without the lamination, but would act like a Roomba, moving until it raninto something.

Microbot was looking for distribution in the US, and when it was available, the UBOT should cost about $US1000, he said.

It also showed a patrol robot provisionally called the Romi. Basically it was a UBOT with an added superstructure with a camera that could send pictures to the remote owner. There was no estimated price or availability time frame.

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