Data and Droids
By Michael Grebb, Fri Jan 10 14:00:00 GMT 2003

Wireless technology and robotics are merging with spectacular sci-fi results.

Since early science fiction movies, robots are most often depicted as menacing predators, or worse, The Terminator itself. But what if robots were actually helpful? If recent announcements are any indication, that's the plan - and wireless technology may help make it possible. Several companies are rolling out household robots with wireless features ranging from Internet access to remote home monitoring. Indeed, processing technology and bipedal advances are just now converging with the proliferation of wireless networks in ways that could turn the 2000s into the Robot Millennium.

Of course, it's unclear whether robots will ever truly gain mass acceptance (Japan appears more psychologically comfortable with the idea than most of the West), but the robotics industry - once focused solely on industrial machinery and military hardware - is starting to prepare for a future in which consumers may want robots of their own.

Honda just announced a new version of its ASIMO robot whose features now include retrieving information from the Internet using a wireless local area network (LAN) connected to a household PC. As a result, ASIMO can deliver news and weather updates, and even responds to questions using voice-recognition technology.

But although ASIMO's cute-little-spaceman veneer might woo some consumers, Honda will focus in 2003 almost exclusively on leasing the robot to corporations for reception areas and for other showcase functions. Price tag: About $150,000 per year. Not exactly in the average person's budget.

Robots for The Masses

ASIMO aside, more accessible household robots are starting to hit the scene. And while some advanced features aren't yet an affordable option, most of the new models are using wireless connectivity to the Internet and/or wireless voice/data networks as a carrot to entice consumers who might otherwise balk at buying a household robot.

Sony, which has already created a global niche of robot-lovers with its Aibo robot dog product, in March announced a prototype humanoid version - code named SDR-4X - that does far more than its canine predecessor. SDR-4X can walk, recognize faces with an onboard camera, and even sing lyrics to uploaded music, but it can also recognize speech by synchronizing data processing with a PC connected through a wireless LAN. In addition, its SDR Motion Creator allows a user to program complex movements (such as a dance) into a PC and then route them to SDR-4X through the same wireless system.

Although Sony officials have no specific plans to expand the robot's wireless capabilities in the immediate future, Sony spokesman Taro Takamine notes that it's "too early to say" whether future versions will contain Internet access or other wireless features. "We're studying it," he says. "We have not decided yet. We are thinking of all the possibilities right now." Sony also hasn't released any specific pricing information, but the robot is expected to cost thousands of dollars.

In 2003, Canadian firm Dr. Robot will begin selling a bipedal robot that its marketing as a cheaper alternative to the SDR-4X. For between $1,500 and $3,100, consumers will be able to buy Dr. Robot, which can be remotely controlled through a wireless connection to the Internet, among other features. In fact, Dr. Robot's Web site goes as far as to market Dr. Robot as a "wireless, Web-enabled tool... capable of performing numerous functions and tasks."

U.S. specialty retailer The Sharper Image, which excels in selling high-end gadgetry and gift items, is already hawking an even cheaper (and more toy-like) robot for the holidays. The 25-inch-tall RoboScout, which resembles R2-D2 of Star Wars fame, uses a 2.4-gigahertz transmitter to send images from an onboard camera to a wireless remote control unit. That way, a user can put RoboScout on "sentry" duty at night or put it in the corner of a playroom to monitor the kids from another room. Simple functions, yes, but perhaps the push consumers need to get used to the idea of a household robot. RoboScout costs about $600 (plus an extra $200 for an optional PC interface that allows remote control from a PC).

Meanwhile, Fujitsu has made wireless connectivity the main selling point of its new MARON-1 home-robot product, which was unveiled in October. Unlike other models that walk and move like humans, MARON-1 looks like a toaster on wheels and has a communications card based on the Japanese wireless standard known as PHS, or "personal handyphone system."

A user can send commands through an NTT DoCoMo phone to control MARON-1 remotely. While the application software is proprietary, the robot's operating system is based on Windows CE. "Maron-1 is a mobile phone," explains Fujitsu spokesman Scott Ikeda. "So as long as it is in the covered range of service, there should be no connection problems."

In addition, MARON-1 has a built-in infrared remote control and can act as a universal controller for household appliances. "All you need to do is make MARON-1 copy the infrared signal patterns of the remote controls of household appliances you own," says Ikeda. "MARON-1 then becomes the second remote-control handset of that appliance. So basically, any kind of appliance with infrared-control capability can be controlled by MARON-1 without additional investment." That could come in handy as builders continue to put wireless capabilities into new houses, including high-tech air conditioning, heating, and lighting systems - all of which could interact with a similarly outfitted household robot.

Transformers and Sentries

To be sure, wireless features are starting to become a larger part of robotics research. Wen-Min Shen, a professor of computer science at the University of Southern California, has been working on "transformer" robots that are actually systems of interchangeable, wireless modules that can communicate via infrared signals with one another. Such devices could constantly change shape, depending on whether the task at hand is a rescue operation, space exploration, or inspecting toxic-spill sites. "It's for places in which it's dangerous for humans to go," says Shen. Such functionality, of course, is equally useful for more mundane tasks, such as just getting from the basement to the family room in an efficient manner. "It can become a snake, but then if it has to climb stairs, it grows legs," he says.

Eventually, wireless systems could connect robots across distances, allowing security robots to set up a perimeter around a house or business. If one of the robots detected an intruder, for example, it could wirelesssly contact other sentries for assistance and perhaps even surround the intruder until help arrived. "You could daisy chain," says Nick Hunn, the London-based managing director of TDK Systems, which makes wireless modules that operate on the "Bluetooth" wireless standard. "As long as you have two robots within that range, you can use each as a stepping stone." That could allow the robot closest to a central hub to relay back information from the farthest-away robot, which may be too far away for its signal to directly reach the hub.

One could envision a world in which security systems could also communicate directly with emergency responders. A sentry's camera could even wirelessly relay images from the scene back to the responding officers so that they would know how many intruders they were up against and other details about their locations and conditions or help firefighters determine the status of a fire en route.

Of course, such safety benefits aren't without their risks. Indeed, the biggest risk to any constantly connected robot or robot group is that someone could actually hack into the system and turn the robots against the very people they are protecting. "We have to worry about how to keep the bad guys from getting into the network and telling the robot to do something," says Shen. It's not hard to imagine hacker-burglar ordering a guard robot to unlock the front door, for example.

It's unclear whether people will ever embrace robots that walk or roll around houses and offices, considering the non-robotic options often available. "As someone whose primary research is in walking robotics, it might seem ironic that I don't see a big future for walking robots in the home or elsewhere," says Andy Ruina, a professor of theoretical and applied mechanics at Cornell University and head of its robotics and human power lab.

"I can imagine computers and wireless communication more and more working their way into our ever more automated homes, but I don't see this evolution as being likely to lead to robots, at least in the humanoid sense that we think of them now - walking around, fetching things, and cleaning up." Rather, Ruina says home automation will resemble that which has infiltrated cars in recent years (no robotic arm adjusts the temperature on an automated thermostat; it just happens because of the car's internal software systems).

Nonetheless, several companies are banking that Ruina and other skeptics are wrong - and these firms are using wireless connectivity as one incentive to get folks hooked on the idea that robots (in all of their bipedal and R2-D2-inspired glory) could become part of their daily lives. If recent wireless trends are any indication, robots may have a fighting chance. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission continues to work to free up more unlicensed spectrum to benefit new devices, which could include robots using unlicensed bands. And just this month AT&T, Intel, and IBM said they will form Cometa Networks to offer broadband wireless Internet access using Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) technology based on the 802.11 standard.

This, as well as other increased usage of wireless networks (both short and long range) could clear the way for more wireless robots. Or perhaps not. Whatever the outcome, we can all agree on one thing: No one wants them to look anything like The Terminator.

Michael Grebb has also written for Wireless Week, Business 2.0, and Wired News. From Washington DC, he covers the impact of mobile technology on modern society.