Mobile robots aren't science fiction anymore

Just don't expect them to look, walk and talk like C-3PO in the Star Wars movies -- rolling and beeping like R2-D2 is more like it

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Each stocker is served by five to 10 robots, and their productivity is enhanced by a factor of two or three, because they don't have to move around, Stevens estimated. As their power runs low, the robots ask permission to break away and go to a recharger.

A typical installation would cost about $3 million and would involve as many as 150 robots, Stevens said. Installation is a matter of days, he added. Kiva has one publicly announced customer -- Staples Inc. -- with 150 robots in one warehouse, and others are pending or unannounced, he said.

Vacuum cleaners and war machines

Of course, the big success story in the robot field is iRobot Corp. in Burlington, Mass., which has sold more than 2 million floor-cleaning units for home use -- but they lack the size, power and central control seen in commercial units. The military units made by iRobot and others are largely remote-controlled devices, Diodato added.

And then there's Japan, source of numerous news announcements concerning walking robots. Kevin Kalb, business development coordinator for the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) office in Chicago, said he knew of no sales of Japanese commercial mobile robots to the U.S. "The market is not at a point where there is a high demand," he said.

"People from JETRO came by about six months ago and were fairly impressed, but they hadn't realized that I was selling this to customers already," said Diodato. "They're building robots, which is great, but the key is the solution, not the robot. I have not encountered anyone who has purchased any mobile robots from Japan."

Seekur outdoor patrol robot being developed by MobileRobots Inc.
Seekur outdoor patrol robot being developed by MobileRobots Inc.

The next hurdle for mobile robots will be outdoor navigation, said Dietsch, whose firm is readying its Seekur model, which she expects to release in another year. Instead of one onboard computer, it will have as many as five, with additional laser range finders plus Global Positioning System capability, she indicated.

"With enough intelligence on board, it can still operate safely if it loses the wireless signal," she said, adding that the base units will cost a little over $100,000.

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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