Invasion of the Home Robots

A new generation of robots wants to clean your house and mow your lawn.

Lawn Mowing Robot

The RL1000 from Friendly Robotics can mow up to an acre of grass.

Smelling the fresh air after a long week at the office is nice. But you weren’t planning on experiencing nature from behind the handle of a push mower. Or maybe it’s just been a long day. The floors are grimy, and the last thing you want to do is whip out the broom and dustpan.

Well, you’re in luck.

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In the last five years household robotics have advanced by leaps and bounds, and today, solid, reliable products are available in unprecedented variety. Not only do these bots sweep, clean, and cut more efficiently than in the past, they’re also affordable.

For the most part, the gadgets fall into two categories: floor cleaners and lawn mowers.

Floor-Cleaning Robots
Floor-cleaning robots come in different sizes, but they all maintain the same general shape — an oversized hockey puck — and they all use similar mechanics to get the job done.

Working in a pre-programmed combination of patterns — zigzag, circular, crisscross — the bots comb the floor, using either bump sensors at the low end, or sonar and infra-red sensors at the high end, to navigate obstacles.

Starting with the iRobot line of floor cleaners, these are robots for people who aren’t sure they like robots. The signature product, the Roomba line, is efficient at what it does, using a bump sensor to steer clear of obstacles. This is also your most cost effective robot, ranging from $119.99–$349.99 depending on the model you want.

Starting at the basic, stripped down model, all the way up to the top, the Roomba line does do a good job keeping visible dirt from accumulating. It’ll make short work of dirt tracked in through the kitchen, and keep the carpets looking spic and span. However, none of these floor-cleaning bots have a full vacuum motor. They do have some suction capabilities, but they rely primarily on a brush setup to sweep the dirt into the holding receptacle. While this isn’t a problem in the short term, for households with plush carpets, a regular manual vacuum still needs to be used periodically to pick up the deep dirt.

The top of the line iRobot model sports snazzy options — a scheduler, self-recharging dock, and slightly longer operating time.

If you absolutely loathe carpet and have primarily hardwood floors, never fear. The iRobot line has you covered with the Scooba (MSRPs: $299.99-$399.99), a specialized bot that mops and squeegees, working with the bump sensor much like its cousin, the Roomba.

If you’re looking for variety, there is another domestic robotic vacuum, manufactured by Metapo, known as the CleanMate. The CleanMate is very similar to the Roomba in most aspects — design, price, and function – -with one key difference. There are only two model versions (the Roomba has many specialty iterations for pets, workshops, etc.) but the higher-end Metapo product comes with Roomba-like features, such as a stair sensor and a self-recharging station, at a significantly lower price ($129.39-$199).

For those with a bigger budget looking for snazzier robo-vacs, two products are worth looking into: the Karcher RC3000 and Electrolux Trilobite. Availability of these models is limited in the U.S and prospective buyers may have to go through private sellers on sites like eBay.

The Karcher RC3000 is a snazzy machine with noticeable differences from lower-priced domestic models. Instead of using a bump sensor to avoid obstacles, it utilizes infrared to steer clear of furniture, empties its dirt bin into the recharging station, and notifies users when the bin is full.

The Trilobite is comparable to the RC3000 in many respects — from price to function — with a more robust vacuum motor, a self-recharging station, and innovative design elements to prevent an over-full dirt bin and hang-ups on transitions from floor to carpet.

There is one caveat for all robotic vacuums, regardless of price. They don’t handle plush, fuzzy carpet well, even at the high end. So if you have a Wooly Mammoth rug over a good portion of your house, your best bet is to stick to a standard vacuum for the time being.

Lawn Mower Robots
Unless you’ve got kids, taking care of that grass probably isn’t your favorite chore. And before you go plunking down $5,000 on a top of the line riding mower, give some consideration to the robotic variety. Robotic mowers are here and now, and they work. Reliably.

The beauty of robotic lawnmowers, such as Husqvarna’s market-leading Auto Mower (MSRP: $2,400), is that they cut your lawn every day. Since the bots cut in such tight intervals, the grass is automatically mulched; raking and bagging become chores of the past.

The robot mowers work much the same as the floor-cleaning bots, utilizing variable patterns. They remain bounded in the lawn with an easy to install perimeter wire that lays an inch beneath the soil.

The RL1000 and the RL850 from Friendly Robotics also handle lawn-mowing chores (MSRPs: $1495-$1999.95). They can cover anywhere between a half-acre to a full-acre of mowing with ease.

Both the Husqvarna and Friendly lines have self-recharging stations, remote controls, and sensors that steer them clear of obstacles. And, of course, with any automated machine sporting whirring blades, safety is always a concern. Both lines have blade systems, with feedback cutout switches and multiple smaller blades that attach to a disk on a pivot, which at most, leaves a scratch if the unforeseen happens and mow over an errant foot. You won’t get that kind of safety with even a top of the line push mower or riding mower, due to the heavy solid steel blades.

Robots in the Near Future
Robots have already crept into our lives, says Matt Mason, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. That handy car GPS that tells you where to turn is in fact a semi-intelligent robot that’s handling a job normally processed in your brain. The unobtrusive nighttime heads up display on some newer model cars and the GPS locator chip in cell phone are also small examples of robotic automation.

On the more extreme end, researchers at Duke University recently wired a robotic arm into a monkey’s brain, and put it in a comfy box. Don’t worry, the monkey looked happy (see video). With its movement restricted, the simian quickly learned how to control the robotic arm to perform amazingly fine tuned movements. In fact, it was able to pluck grapes from the researchers, and pop them into its mouth as if nothing was out of the usual, seemingly unaware that its new appendage was anything but natural.

In five to 10 years, a robotic wheel chair could be on the market that takes commands from as little as eyelid blinks, according to Jeanne Dietsch, CEO of MobileRobots. The company currently has a prototype model, but extensive testing needs to be done before it can be released to market due to safety concerns. An automated wheel chair is no small matter, as it has the life of its occupant in its hands in emergency situations. By the same token, as robotics become ubiquitous, robots that fetch items for the disabled, or bend down to pick up dropped materials, aren’t far away.

As our lives become increasingly dependent on semi-intelligent autonomous machines, the question isn’t will your household have a robot. It’s when.

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