October 21, 2004 2:08 PM PDT

Robo-vacuum wins wall-to-wall praise at confab

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Robots are starting to mean business.

For years, the robotics field was characterized largely by researchers tinkering away on prototype gizmos. But now, robotics companies are beginning to mature, leaders said at a conference here Thursday.

Helen Greiner, co-founder of iRobot, said her company had sold 1 million of its Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners--a milestone that drew applause from robot enthusiasts here at the RoboNexus International Conference & Exposition. And Alec Hudnut, president of Evolution Robotics, said the industry has some key "building blocks" in place, such as low-cost memory.

Hudnut also said the industry will benefit as robotics technologies are used and improved in other fields. Evolution Robotics' object-recognition system, for example, soon will be piloted in the grocery store industry to make sure that items on the bottom level of shopping carts aren't missed in check-out lanes. After a technology is tested in another arena, "it will be more valuable for robotics," he said.

The conference speakers appeared a day after the publication of a bullish United Nations report on robotics. The study showed fast growth in the market for industrial robots and predicted surges in sales of household service robots as well as entertainment and leisure robots.

Robotics appears to be turning a corner, thanks partly to advances in fields such as sensors, navigation software and processing power.

The latest generation of robots includes Sony's newest Aibo robotic dog, which is designed to play back music files while dancing to the beat, as well as act as a video surveillance system. The Roomba vacuum cleaners are disk-shaped 'bots that can detect dirt, avoid falling down stairs while patrolling the carpet and return to their charging station on their own. The entry-level Roomba is priced at $149.

Greiner said hitting the 1 million mark in Roomba sales was a "dream come true" but suggested that there are hard lessons to be learned in becoming a successful robotics company. Businesses have to consider issues such as brand image, distribution and quality control, she said.

Last year, high-end versions of the Roomba were shipped with a defect that affected the way the robots recharged, she said. The company created a fix and even earned consumer respect for the way it handled the glitch, Greiner said. But the problem cost iRobot $750,000, she said.

"Small changes in design can have unexpected consequences," she said.

Neena Buck, vice president of "Emerging Frontiers" at research firm Strategy Analytics, suggested that the robotics industry can help makers of consumer electronics products improve in areas such as devices perceiving their surroundings. Buck also sees an opportunity for robots in the future to assist people with physical tasks. A frequent traveler, Buck said she could envision a robot that helps lug baggage around.

"It would be really nice to have a robotic Sherpa," she said.

 

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