New Robots That Clean House, Play With Kids

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- When Westinghouse Electric unveiled a seven-foot-tall aluminum robot named Elektro at the 1939 World's Fair, Americans fell in love with the notion of anthropomorphic machines doing work for them.

Robots, now commonly seen roaming factories and vacuuming floors, create less of a stir 70 years later. In terms of whiz-bang entrepreneurship, investors will probably remember 2009 as the year of solar cells, smart grids and smarter drugs.

Robots remain as cool as ever, and the past year offered plenty of robotic innovation in a variety of fields, including, most importantly, the field of fun. Here are five robotic innovations that are sure to change the world, or at least the living room.


Move over, Garmin ( GRMN) and your simplistic global positioning system. Here comes the Affective Intelligent Driving Agent, a.k.a. AIDA. A collaborative effort between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Volkswagen ( VOW), AIDA plays the role of a supportive passenger with a really good sense of direction. The robot keeps track of weather conditions, traffic-causing events (street fairs, concerts) and potential destinations, and suggests routes accordingly.

More importantly, a video camera in AIDA's face watches the driver's face for signs of anger, frustration or fatigue. The robot makes suggestions accordingly, changing its expressions to exhibit signs of artificial compassion, batting her virtual baby blues at the driver or shedding digital tears, for example. While MIT announced the project in October, AIDA is still in the research phase and it's too soon to say when it will be commercially available, according to an MIT spokeswoman.

The Bossa Nova Prime-8

MIT hogs much of the attention when it comes to adorable robots, but there's plenty of robotic fun coming out of Carnegie Mellon University too. Such is the case with Bossa Nova Robotics, located across the street from CMU in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Launched in July, Bossa Nova's Prime-8 is a two-legged robot gorilla that runs on his arms, shoots lasers and throws plastic coconuts at intruders -- providing vicarious thrills for eight-year-olds. It sells for $99. The company also makes a gentler interactive robot called Penbo Penguin, which plays games with the baby penguin that lives in her belly, and performs a happy dance when children play with her. Penbo sells for $79.

Co-founder Sarjoun Skaff started Bossa Nova while at Carnegie Mellon, studying "high-performance legged mobility" for a project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). "The lightbulb came on when I was experimenting with my research robots," he says. "We would take the robots out for experimentation, and children would go crazy."

Plans for 2010 include a six-legged robot, Skaff says.

The iRobot Looj Gutter Cleaning Robot

iRobot ( IRBT) is best-known for its Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, but we think the company deserves bigger props for creating a product that keeps customers from falling off their roofs. Controlled by a wireless remote, the Looj can clean a 60-foot section of gutter in 10 minutes, spinning along at 500 rotations per minute to dislodge and toss wet leaves, pine needles and anything else that might fall off a tree in a gusty November. This year, the company bested its initial model with a second-generation Looj, which features an anti-flipping augur and an internal antenna. The Looj retails for $169.99

iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner has been busy with a new robotic venture called CyPhy Works, which is working on a flying robot -- an "Unmanned Air Vehicle" that can inspect bridges, dams and other large structures by flying along their undersides, recording images and video, and relaying that data to civil engineers. The devices aim to inspect bridges for safety without shutting down traffic. On Dec. 15, the National Institute of Standards and Technology said it would give CyPhy a $2.4 million grant to support the project during the next three years.

The Robonica Roboni-i

Launched in October, the Roboni-i was borne of the notion that video games are too anti-social and toy robots can always stand to be a little cooler. It's the first product from the start-up company Robonica, which sports the tagline, "The Rise of Robotic Gaming."

"Robonica was created to respond to the morning-after-Christmas syndrome," says Tom Dusenberry, president of the company, which keeps its R&D functions in Centurion, South Africa, and its commercial headquarters in Beverly, Mass. "You open your robot, you play with it, and then what? We've created a consumer robot that creates sustained play."

The two-wheeled, 16-sensored robot comes with several games it can play with the owner, with other robots in the same room or in cyberspace. Owners can also program the Roboni-i to dance and turn somersaults. They can also put the robot into "aggressive" or "passive" mode, which basically means choosing whether the robot will plow into anything that gets in its way or back away politely. The robot sells for $250, but the company expects the price to drop to about $200 next year, when the product becomes more widely available.

Willow Garage PR2

Dedicated to helping other people design cooler robots faster than they can today, start-up Willow Garage has created an open-source robot operating system ("The ROS") and development platform. It's called the PR2, a two-armed robot that knows how to open doors, look for electrical outlets and plug itself in.

The company's Web site describes Willow Garage as "a unique blend of a research lab, technology incubator and think tank." The company plans to make the PR2 available to both academic and industrial research labs. "This platform alleviates the difficult and costly process of building a robot from concept to finished product. Researchers can focus on unsolved problems rather than dealing with soldering, power supplies and communication protocols," the Web site says.

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-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.

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