Robotics industry hypes drive to market

Robotics experts gather to show off their latest advances, and say that, more than ever, the devices are attracting a wide range of customers. Photos: Robot makers converge at confab

Matt Hines Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Matt Hines
covers business software, with a particular focus on enterprise applications.
Matt Hines
4 min read
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Now more than ever, robotic devices are poised for rapid adoption by everyone from the military to the average consumer, according to industry experts gathered here Tuesday.

Robotics manufacturers, components makers and their potential customers assembled on Tuesday for the second annual RoboBusiness conference. The overwhelming consensus of those gathered at the event was that the latest generation of the machines will further transform the market for robots because the devices are rapidly becoming more useful, dependable and cost-effective.


Among the gadgets showcased at the RoboBusiness conference were robots built to be controlled by children, serve tough duty in hostile parts of Iraq, or perform a range of functions in many settings. Companies well known for robotics technology, such as Roomba maker iRobot and electronics giant Sony, were also in attendance. But the lineup also included lesser known faces in the automaton world, such as software behemoth Microsoft and agriculture specialist John Deere.

In an attempt to demonstrate just how quickly newfangled robots are finding their way into customers' hands, iRobot Chairman and Co-founder Helen Greiner pointed out that these relatively new machines are being purchased at a faster rate than were some of the world's most commonly used devices. According to Greiner's numbers, black-and-white televisions were on the market for six years before 1 million of the sets were sold, and mobile phones were available for four years before they hit the million-sales mark. By contrast, she said, iRobot's Roomba vacuum took less than two years to sell 1.5 million units.

"All of these devices that people now consider indispensable were adopted at much slower rates," Greiner said. "The question is no longer, Will you have a robot in your home in the future? But instead, How many?"

In addition to greater customer demand for robots and a larger pool of manufacturers bringing new products to market, Greiner said, a growing number of venture capital firms is looking to help fund development. Whereas investors would laugh robotics makers out of the building when they came calling for funding only several years ago, she said, breakthroughs such as Roomba have finally convinced Wall Street that there are profits to be made in the robotics business sooner rather than later.

In addition to the Roomba, iRobot is building the PackBot, a "tactical mobile robot" designed specifically for use in military applications. The company showed off the device at the gathering. The machine, which fits into a backpack and comes in three models, can be used to dispose of the so-called improvised explosive devices used by insurgents in Iraq. Robots that serve combat duty were in fact one of the trends evident at the show.

Other companies showed off computer systems that serve as the brains of robotic devices. One firm, CoroWare, displayed a prototype it calls CoroBot that was built entirely from off-the-shelf computer and electronics components in an effort to create powerful yet affordable robotics gadgets. The four-wheel machine can be put together for less than $1,000, has already been sold

to several research organizations and is being used in an ongoing research program at Vassar College.

Company executives claim that new markets for the machines are popping up on their own.

"We have people coming to us from the real estate sector because they can use it to show remote locations, and from the health care field to help in surgery and instruction," said Martin Harvey, a principal consultant with CoroWare. "These aren't purposes we had originally devised for the robots, but the markets are identifying themselves to us and we're trying to respond."

Harvey said that CoroWare expects to sell several dozen of the robots this year.

In another nod to computing technology in robots, Frontline Robotics and White Box Robotics announced that they plan to merge to pursue business in the security robotics sector. Frontline Robotics markets the Robot Open Control (ROC) operating system, which is used to coordinate teams of the devices, while White Box Robotics has created the PC-Bot, another mobile robot made from off-the-shelf personal computer parts.

For consumer companies, the growth in the number and variety of robots coming to market presents new opportunities to sell gadgets to robotics fans, observers said. Eric Blair, a mechanical design engineer for retailer The Sharper Image, pointed out that his company has sold robotic devices for more than a decade, making it something of a trailblazer in the field. Despite that length of experience, he said the company is hungry to discover what the next big consumer robot might be, and to get that product into its stores.

"We're here because we want to be part of the evolution, to continue to be there for consumers as more of these products gain acceptance and find their way onto the market," Blair said. "You look at the growing acceptance of robots in pop culture and elsewhere, and you can see that a lot of the ideas that came from science fiction are finally becoming reality."