Appliance autonomy promises to make life simpler

-December 13, 2016

This article is part of EDN and EE Times’ Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2017 feature, where our editors examine some of the hot trends and technologies in 2016 that promise to shape technology news in 2017 and beyond.

Way back in 2002, I began an editorial with these words:

I've often wondered whether the science-fiction writers—and, come to think of it, The Jetsons animators—of past decades were more than just accurate predictors of the future. Could they, in fact, have shaped the future, by giving a generation of television-watching youth a technology road map to use when they later became engineers?

At the time, I was drawing a specific analogy to Star Trek, particularly to the tricorder as a conceptual precursor to the voice recognition software-augmented PDA I was testing at the time. But the more general analogy also holds true, I think. Speaking of The Jetsons, for example, I confess that my initial autonomous-device influence as a child wasn't some mysterious exotic robot such as Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (that came later). Instead, it came in the form of The Jetsons’ more mundane (albeit perhaps no less intelligent) housekeeper, Rosie, along with autonomous vehicles such as Herbie the Love Bug:

Source: Wikipedia

Rosie may have seemed fanciful in the early 1960s when she first appeared on television, but (as with tricorders-now-smartphones) her real-life successors are rapidly catching up to her conceptual capabilities. Take, for example, Dyson's 360 Eye autonomous vacuum cleaner:

Source: Wikipedia

It's not the first robotic carpet cleaner, mind you; those started showing up about the same time that my previously mentioned voice-activated PDA editorial was originally published. But it's one of the best, albeit also currently one of the most expensive, options now available in the market. Why?

Early-generation robotic vacuum cleaners included pressure sensors that randomly rerouted the device in response to collisions with walls and other objects. They also integrated infrared "cliff" detectors that claimed to prevent the robot from tumbling down steps. And external infrared and RF "beacons" promised to both contain the robot within a defined space and guide it back to its charging dock if the battery ran low while the robot was in a different room.

I owned several of these early-generation units; their performance was passable at best. The collision detectors didn't prevent noisy (and potentially wall-marring) impacts, and the random-direction response often resulted in the unit getting stuck under furniture, for example. The infrared detectors stopped working reliably once they got dirty (pretty much a given with a vacuum cleaner!). The standalone beacons were a hassle to set up, move, and remove afterwards, not to mention draining their batteries at inconvenient times. And once the robot recharged itself, it didn't remember which rooms (and areas of rooms) it had already covered.

The built-in vision processing in the Dyson 360 Eye, along with latest-generation models from the company's competitors, resolves these issues. The cameras are high enough above the floor that they aren't dust-obscured. They can see (and therefore avoid) objects in their path prior to hitting them. And since the robots store a "map" of where they've already been, along with where the charging dock is, they become highly efficient autonomous travelers and cleaners.

Interestingly, although the vision processing-and-response circuitry consumes incremental battery charge, the end result can conceivably still be a net sum gain, because the robot's movements are so much more efficient than before. And more available battery life means longer operation of both the transport and suction motors between charges, and/or a smaller and lighter required battery for a particular between-charges operating life target, both factors translating into a happier consumer. For more on the 360 Eye, check out a keynote conference presentation from Dyson electronics lead Mike Aldred, along with a product demo conducted by the same engineer.

Autonomy for the consumer isn't restricted to vacuum cleaners (and their siblings such as floor moppers, swimming pool scrubbers, and gutter cleaners), of course. Professor Pieter Abbeel at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, has demonstrated robots capable of highly dexterous tasks such as folding crumpled laundry items. And more recently, the Boston Dynamics (a Google-now-Alphabet company) SpotMini robot, whose design was modeled on the structure of a dog, was video'd loading a dishwasher and putting trash in a basket (along with slipping on a banana peel ... oops).

Healthcare provides another perhaps obvious opportunity for autonomous assistance; ensuring that a home-located patient (a more cost-effective, not to mention more comfortable, alternative to being hospital-bound) reliably takes his or her medication, for example. More generally, as the Earth's population ages, intelligent robots can tackle many tasks that their human masters (partners?) are no longer able to do on their own, as well as monitoring their owners' well-being and sending out alerts when something goes amiss. And with a nod to previously mentioned Herbie, the rapidly approaching era of fully-autonomous vehicles will not only lengthen elderly persons' periods of independence, but enhance the commutes of those of us who would rather be doing something ... anything ... other than staring at the road ahead.

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