Where's my robot butler? High-tech help is hard to find

Robots in all shapes and sizes are starting to work alongside people more closely than ever.

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If you're looking for signs of our collective robotic future, it's either terrifyingly near or forever just around the corner.

More than a half-century after the world's first industrial robot, Unimate, began work at a General Motors plant, most commercial robots still work in factories. And household robots have usually been limited to performing one task only, like sucking up dirt.

But researchers are slowly advancing the field.

Note: This slideshow was adapted from the story "Where's my robot butler? Good (high-tech) help is hard to find"





Credit: Hitachi
Emiew 2

Hitachi recently announced improvements to its pint-sized humanoid robot Emiew 2 that allow it to banter with humans and tell jokes, as well as have better awareness of its surroundings. About 80 cm tall and weighing 14 kg, Emiew 2 has a bright red outer shell and scoots around on two wheels under its legs. Originally developed in 2005, the platform is designed to be a helper and guide for people in office settings.

Emiew 2 can move at 6 km per hour, about as fast as a person walking briskly. The laser sensor can track people walking around the robot, provide data to plot their expected path, and help Emiew 2 to avoid collisions.

Credit: Vincent Desailly
NAO

Another humanoid machine that's designed to operate in everyday environments is NAO from France's Aldebaran Robotics. Engineered to be a "friendly companion around the house," NAO is only 58-cm tall and has a toy-like charm as well as sophisticated sensors such as a sonar rangefinder and face-detection algorithms.

It can chat in 19 languages, sing and dance. Already used by research labs and universities, it has been used to help autistic children improve their social interaction skills.

But there are several obstacles preventing NAO from becoming a must-have gadget in the consumer market. One is cost. While NAO is already impressively cheap for a sophisticated humanoid, it still costs around $10,000.

Credit: Willow Garage
PR2

So what robot can you call to clean up your messy bedroom? Well, open-source robots can do the job -- when controlled by a human.

A sped-up video on YouTube shows how the two-armed, wheeled PR1 robot at Stanford University can tidy up a mess, albeit slowly and with a person at the remote controls. Other videos by roboticists have shown how PR1's successor, the celebrated PR2, can autonomously take on drudge work such as folding laundry or even fetching a beer from the fridge.

PR2, though, doesn't come cheap. California-based developer Willow Garage has put a $280,000 price tag on the hulking, Microsoft Kinect-equipped machine. That's way more than anyone would spend on a housekeeping droid.

Credit: iRobot
Ava 500

Massachusetts-based iRobot, the maker of Roomba, has moved into the telepresence space along with a host of startups. Its RP-VITA and AVA 500 machines are designed for hospitals and workplaces, respectively.

Both are autonomously navigating wheeled columns topped by HD displays that show the remote human operator's face. Doctors can talk to patients through RP-VITA, which received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year, or direct others during emergencies such as stroke treatment. The AVA 500 can serve as a teleconference vehicle, but equipped with a robot arm or other tools, it could act as a remote security guard, cargo bot or factory inspector, with or without telepresence functions.

Credit: Unbounded Robotics
UBR-1

Robots have been transforming factories for decades, but to protect workers they've usually been confined to no-go areas for people. Recently developed collaborative robots, or co-robots, are meant to work alongside people, either on the factory floor or in everyday environments.

UBR-1 is a one-armed programmable robot from Unbounded Robotics. It navigates with a laser scanner and runs on ROS, an open-source robot OS with roots in Willow Garage. It can pick up objects weighing up to 1.5 kg and place them on a table. That combination of mobility and manipulation opens up a large field of potential applications. But the real breakthrough with UBR-1 is its price: it starts at only $35,000.