Mass Market Mobile Utility Robots by 2005

Hans Moravec
September 8, 1999


Freely-roaming robots that fetch, clean, guard and do other work have been an elusive fantasy for decades. Industrial mobile robots today have a very limited market because they work only on prearranged routes and require expensive, time consuming installation. A hundredfold increase in onboard computer power in the 1990s has finally allowed research robots to map their own routes, and prowl research building hallways and offices autonomously for days at a time. Industrial applications demand months of trouble-free operation, which can probably be achieved by replacing the two-dimensional maps in the present research machines with thousandfold-richer three-dimensional versions. Building and using 3D maps in real time is just possible with 1,000 MIPS and very efficient algorithms. The author is engaged in a three-year project to extend an existing core of 3D sensing and mapping algorithms into a prototype commercial demonstration. The likely first product is will be a basketball-sized "navigation head" with a ring of stereoscopic cameras, 1,000 MIPS, 3D and application-specific software for retrofit to existing industrial transport and cleaning machines, that lets them operate autonomously in new locations simply designated. The follow-on business plan anticipates a growing industrial market to support the development of mass-market products, starting with small specialized automatic home vacuum cleaners around 2005, followed by more capable home utility robots able to manipulate objects as well as travel, and, sometime after 2010, a first generation of broadly-capable "universal robots" able to perform many simple chores defined by specific application programs.