Robots Move From the Battlefield to Your HomeMilitary technology starts showing up in household devices.
Johan Bostrom, IDG News Service
Mobile robots that may soon appear on the consumer market likely will be built using technologies driven by the U.S. military, according to an analyst covering emerging technologies.
The development of mobile military robots is being pushed by a congressional mandate that at least a third of all military vehicles be autonomous by 2015. That presents a great opportunity for manufacturers of consumer electronics and household appliances, according to Neena Buck, strategy analyst at research firm Emerging Frontiers.
"We need to start at the low end. Irobot's vacuum cleaner is a good example of that," Buck says.
Technologies derived from military research usually make their way through the business sector before being commercialized for the consumer market. Long-life batteries and CDMA (code division multiple access) mobile telephony are examples of that.
"It usually takes about 20 years for a new technology to be accepted in the consumer market," Buck says.
"The industry develops high-level, one-of-a-kind military applications which might result in commercial standards for the business sector. The technology develops, and some startup company forms which may or may not make it. Eventually the prices drop, and the technology is affordable for the consumer," says Buck. Irobot, a robotics company with both a strong military division and a successful consumer products unit--it has sold 1.2 million units of the vacuum cleaner robot Roomba--is an exception and a good example of how things should be done, in Buck's opinion.
The Swedish producer of household appliances AB Electrolux was first on the market with a small robot vacuum cleaner, Trilobite, but it has not been successful since its launch in 2001. "The price was totally wrong, and the marketing has to be more educative," Buck says.
The first version of Irobot's vacuum cleaner, launched in 2002, was less technically advanced and far cheaper than the Trilobite. The first television commercials showed a family in their home not paying attention to the autonomous vacuum cleaner doing its job.
"Just using the word robot scares people off," says Buck, who prefers the term mobile appliance to robot.
"When I use the word 'robot,' consumer electronics companies, household appliance vendors, and software companies often say, 'We're not in that business.' They just don't know it," she says.
Search and Rescue
Another company that sees promise in robots for civilian purposes is Vecna Technologies in College Park, Maryland. It is working with the U.S. Army on developing a robot dubbed Bear to assist in removing the wounded from battlefields.
"I definitely think military robots can navigate their way to the consumer market," says Jonathan Klein, director of the company's robotic research and development division. He spoke at the RoboBusiness conference held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this week, where he presented video footage of a functional mockup of Bear carrying dummies of people.
"Updated versions of the Bear could find a market because of the coming eldercare crisis and give autonomy for people with mobility impairments," Klein says.
Robots also assisted in the search for bodies and survivors at New York's World Trade Center wreckage following the September 11, 2001, attacks, according to Robin Murphy, director of the center for robot-assisted search and rescue at the University of South Florida. But based on her experience, Murphy points out that military robots are not necessarily usable for civilian purposes.
"Our search and rescue robots share the military's 3D environment--dull, dirty and dangerous. But when the army has 52 weeks to train a robot operator, we have 40 to 80 hours to train an operator from a fire department or the police. One size does not fit all," she says.