In just 30 minutes, your boss is visiting you at home to discuss some business that cannot wait until morning. Looking over your living room, you panic: The table is covered with sticky juice rings from junior’s bottle, an abandoned minefield of toys lies waiting for a victim, and the carpet is filthy.
“Vacuum the floor and clean the table while I pick up the toys,” you tell your helper. But you aren’t talking to the maid or the butler. Your short, simple commands are interpreted by a three-foot-high mass of sheet metal and circuitry–your personal robot. A moment later, it is busy whirring across the carpet, sucking up dirt with its built-in vacuum cleaner and avoiding the toys as it moves along.
Although this scenario may sound farfetched, Unimation, the biggest and oldest robot manufacturer (now a subsidiary of Westinghouse), is working on it. “The home robot that cleans your house is entirely feasible from a technical point of view,” says Ira Pence, Unimation vice president of engineering. “We can create a home robot now. Only the high costs are holding us back.”
Unimation expects to get those costs down and produce an affodable mobile home robot. According to Pence, the company plans to produce a prototype in two years and begin deliveries by 1988. It expects the market to be led by people who like to be first with anything new. “There weren’t enough programs to make television worthwhile at first, but people bought them because they were a status symbol,” Pence notes. “Once the status seekers purchse home robots, others are likely to follow. Then we will be in business.”
Unimation envisions a voice-activated home robot that would carry its own on-board computer, controlled by simple verb-object spoken commands. Because the robot will move on its own, it will carry sight sensors so that it can avoid bumping into objects in a room. It will be self-propelled, with a battery-powered electric engine in its base (the batteries will recharge overnight). Programming will be kept at a minimum; instead, the robot will be set up with the help of a Unimation technician, who will key in the floor plan of a user’s house.
If the user moves some furnitue around, the robot will be able to reprogram itself. “In a sense, the robot will be like a blind person,” Pence explains. “It might bump into a chair that has been moved and then take 15 minutes or so to measure all the parameters and recalculate the chair’s relation to the other furniture. It ight take several hours reestablishing a drastically changed floor plan, but the chore could be done when nobody is at home.”
Unimation figures it could build a home robot now for about $250,000, much more than any but the richest of households could afford. It plans to get the price down to $12,000 through the further miniaturization of electronic components.