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

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

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