Commercial computer hardware the key to robots

Robotics companies rely on computer hardware like Sony's Cell processor to gain reliable market share, said Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot Corp.

Commercial computer hardware is the key to building a reliable robot, from faster processors to cheaper flash memory and higher capacity hard drives, according to speakers at a robotics technology conference Friday at the Boston University College of Engineering.

Products like the Cell processor will provide the exponential processing growth needed to bring robots to a mass market, said Colin Angle, chief executive officer of iRobot. The Cell processor was developed by Sony, Toshiba and IBM, and will hit the commercial marketplace in Sony's PlayStation 3 video game console. IRobot makes products like Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner, and PackBot, a military robot that disables booby-traps and land mines.

Another crucial ingredient for robotics design is wireless data network technology such as WiMAX, important for robots to be able to exchange long distance video and other data with their owners.

"As you build out those networks, 802.11 nodes are starting to know where they are. When you know where you are, the utility of your robot is greatly advanced," Angle said during his address at the conference.

Those products have had some success, such as 1.5 million units in lifetime sales of the Roomba, and Monday's announcement of a US$26 million PackBot order from the U.S. Navy.

But as a whole, the robotics industry is not big enough to drive technological innovation on its own, so it relies on electronics used in similar platforms.

"There is strong synergy with consumer electronics. The core of a robot could ultimately be a cell phone," Angle said. Modern mobile phones combine many factors of robotic design, from geolocation to power efficiency and broadband data networking.

The robotics industry could also boost growth by finding applications in new sectors, said Dan Kara, president of Robotics Trends, a research firm in Massachusetts. He also spoke at the conference.

At least five companies have built small robots to mow the grass outside their owners' homes. Once they develop better battery life and safety procedures, they could capture a portion of the US$23 billion lawn care market.

Likewise, the robotic Furby toy was a craze in 1998, selling 40 million units. With improved technology, other designers could capture even larger slices of the US$50 billion toy market, Kara said.

In the meantime, the industry is much smaller, selling about US$5.5 billion annually for industrial robots, the type that automotive companies often bolt to factory floors and use to quickly weld and paint cars. The market for personal services is even less, about US$1 billion for robots used for education, entertainment and cleaning homes.

Another way to spark growth in robotics design may be open-source development. IRobot shares the interface for its Roomba and PackBot robots, allowing partner companies or university researchers to modify them.

That approach has already born fruit, when researchers at Boston University won a U.S. Department of Defense grant to design a sniper detection system to mount on the PackBot. The result is called REDOWL, the robot enhanced detection outpost with lasers.

"Building robots is very hard, and if every university robotics department had to create their own robot to begin research, the industry would never move forward," Angle said.

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