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Friday, May 14, 2010

Home Robot Visions from iRobot

iRobot CEO and co-founder Colin Angle told recently in an interview about his company´s plans in the senior home healthcare arena. Angel is facing an elderly care crisis in the next 20 years, because of shortage of care personal. Elderly live longer and will need more help at home such as vacuum cleaning, helping out of bed, getting dressed, getting to the bathroom. Angle talks about a "robot buddy" that he can call and activate to drive around in his mothers home to make sure that his mother is OK. Instead of sensor based home surveillance he proposes a mobile platform for on-demand virtual visits and social interaction via videoconferencing.

Angel´s view is that the development of the technology platform has to be funded by government agencies before companies can start industrializing for low-cost production and mass marketing via retail and online.

A market boost may be the US the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act (CLASS), which is a mechanism to reimburse people staying at home for technology and services that allow them to stay at home. This will create a great economic opportunity for companies that can deliver cost-effective solutions for independent living.

Angel´s vision of a telepresence robot is not new. Already in 2007 iRobot had launched ConnectR a telepresence robot but it was not practical enough to meet user expectations. Meanwhile competing telepresence systems have established on the market as reported here before but if they will succeed in the long run is an open question. Many technical, legal and ethical issues have to be considered before mobile videorobots can enter elderly´s homes.

Angel´s vision of a robot buddy isn´t new either. Joe Engelberger, the father of robotics, considered in Discovermagazine, March 2000 "a household robot to be an appliance--one that cooks and cleans, offers an arm, handles security, fetches and carries, does my bidding in response to natural language, and carries out the kind of a conversation that an 85-year-old person does. We can do that right now."

10 years after Engelbergers over-optimistic statement the step from a mobile telepresence robot to an intelligent home buddy that can do real homework is still huge. Despite great research efforts, technological advances and promising prototypes it seems that it will take many years, before household robots can help elderly to stay independent.

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