Mobile Robots: The Here and How
By Steve Wallage, Tue Mar 01 08:45:00 GMT 2005
Mobile robots conjure up a sci-fi view of the future; but they are increasingly becoming a reality, with entertainment, rather than robotic servitude, leading the way.
Mark Frauenfelder's intriguing recent article talked about some of the developments in mobile robotics, as well as opening the debate about how and where such robots should be used. While this debate goes on, a new wave of robots are being launched, unsurprisingly in the Japanese market, with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth playing a key role.
The three main sectors for mobile robots have been entertainment, tasks around the house and business or military applications. While doing the mundane tasks have often been behind early successes -- such as iRobot's Roomba, a self-navigating vacuum cleaner, which sells for just $200 and has shipped over 500,000 units since its launch in 2002 -- the key driver is now entertainment. Japan's Emerging Technology Fair, part of the Future Creation Fair, in August 2004, highlighted this trend, but the launch of the sexily named W21T (more appropriately known as the Bluetooth robot) now reinforces it.
It is difficult to quite describe the Bluetooth robot. It's officially described as a bipedal robot, but looks like a cross between a toy and a 1950s writer's vision of an apocalyptic future. Looks notwithstanding, it can do such things as walk, jump, kick and wave its hands, all controlled by Bluetooth from a mobile handset. The self-assembly robot is operated by downloading instructions from the Internet to the mobile device, which are then stored, using a BREW application on KDDI's network. The $1900 robot was developed by I Bee in Japan, and it has its own servo motors and gyro sensors. For those with an interest in the history of robotics, it is based on the work of the Japanese godfather of robotics, Jin Sato, and his C1 model.
Entertainment With Practical Applications
But even in Japan, entertainment is not enough. To bolster sales, KDDI and I Bee have plans for the Bluetooth robot including turning it into a roving home security camera. Other practical applications will be based on the fact that Bluetooth provides bi-directional communication.?
This has already been used by the iconic and quirky Aibo from Sony, which aims to replicate the emotional as well as physical benefits of a pet. Using its on-board camera, AIBO can send pictures to your mobile phone. Rather than something as unimaginative as home security, Sony's marketing team have dreamed up the killer app as AIBO taking pictures of your kids which you can see and store on your mobile phone.
Another Japanese company that has done a lot of robotic work, Epson, has launched its FR-II micro-flying robot, a Bluetooth-controlled helicopter. However, apparently there have been attempts to use the device for transporting messages and small objects, given it can fly for around three minutes. The hope is that it can, within the next two years, be used by the emergency services in rescue missions.
A more practical model is the Ifbot, from Dream Supply, an early example of what the Japanese can look forward to at home. Aimed at the elderly population, it supposedly and rather patronizingly aims to battle "age-driven senility". Having the conversational abilities of a typical Japanese five-year-old, it neatly fits the linguistic restrictions of the robot and supposedly the capabilities of the older Japanese. It is on sale for around $5,500.
However, future versions show the more interesting capabilities of the Ifbot. These include an English-speaking version to help Japanese schoolchildren learn the language, and for the older user, the next version is planned to allow the reading of news, the monitoring of health functions and the ability to alert doctors in the case of medical emergency.
Not to miss out on the party, businesses are a major target for the mobile robot manufacturers. A good example of a current model is PatrolBot, which uses Wi-fi for "environmental" testing. It can also be used for remote surveillance. Although details are unsurprisingly limited, it seems mobile robots also played a part in collecting information in Iraq. The Sony iRobot was used in areas considered too dangerous for humans, including exploring potentially hostile buildings or terrain and sending images back to the military operations center.
Onto The Future
The future for mobile robots is far from clear. The Japanese version of this future shows increasing emotional intelligence, as well as a rather unsettling similarity to humans -- see, for example, the Honda ASIMO "humanoid robot". They also have the rather quaint notion of self-dependency for the robots. Future versions of the Sony iRobot, for example, will be able to dock themselves to recharge, and clean themselves. This is a more serious issue in the business market, where concern over maintenance and servicing costs have been a key obstacle to the take up of mobile robots.
As for today, it is clear that Bluetooth is the key short-range technology and the basis of remote control of the mobile robots. It also shows the potential of machine to machine mobile communications, a vision of the mobile future long championed by the Japanese.