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Monday, December 10, 2012

Robotic Gadgets for Household Chores

Robotic Gadgets for Household Chores

BERLIN - Joseph Schlesinger, an engineer living near Boston, thinks robotic toys are too expensive, the result of extravagant designs, expensive components and a poor understanding of consumer tastes. So this year, Mr. Schlesinger, 23, began to manufacture an affordable robot, one he is selling for $250 to holiday shoppers.

His creation, the Hexy, is a six-legged, crablike creature that can navigate its own environment and respond to humans with a hand wave or other programmable gesture. Mr. Schlesinger said he had been able to lower production costs by using free software and by molding a lot of the plastic parts locally in Massachusetts, not in China.

Since setting up his company, ArcBotics, in suburban Somerville, Massachusetts, Mr. Schlesinger has built a backlog of more than 1,000 orders. His goal, he said, was to become “the Ikea of robotics.”

“I think the market for consumer robotics is poised to explode,” said Mr. Schlesinger, a graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. “We are only at the beginning.”

Since the 1960s, robots have assumed major roles in industrial manufacturing and assembly, the remote detonation of explosives, search and rescue, and academic research. But the devices have remained out of reach, in affordability and practicality, to most consumers.

That, according to Professor Andrew Ng, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at Stanford University in California, is about to change. One big reason, Mr. Ng said, is the mass production of smartphones and game consoles, which has driven down the size and price of robotic building blocks like accelerometers, gyroscopes and sensors.

On the edges of consumer consciousness, the first generation of devices with rudimentary artificial intelligence are beginning to appear: entertainment and educational robots like the Hexy, and a line of tireless household drones that can mow lawns, sweep floors, clean swimming pools and even enhance golf games.

“I'm seeing a huge explosion of robotic toys and believe that there will be one soon in industry,” said Mr. Ng, an associated professor of computer science at Stanford.

The most advanced robots remain exotic workhorses like NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover, which cost $2.5 billion, and the LS3, a doglike robot being developed for the U.S. military that can carry a 400-pound, or 180-kilogram load more than 20 miles, or about 30 kilometers. The mechanical beast of burden, whose price is not public, is being made by a consortium led by Boston Dynamics. In Menlo Park, California, engineers at Willow Garage, a robotics firm, are selling the two-armed, 5-foot-4 inch (1.63-meter) rolling robot called the PR2 for $400,000.

A video on Willow Garage's Web site shows the PR2 fetching beer from a refrigerator, which while an engineering and programming feat, is an expensive way to get beer.

“I think we're still some years away from useful personal robots making pervasive appearances in our homes,” Mr. Ng said.

Right now, for the masses, there is the CaddyTrek, a robotic golf club carrier that follows a player from tee to fairway to green through tall grass, up 30-degree slopes and in snow, for as many as 27 holes on a single charge. Players wear a remote control on their belts, which acts as a homing beacon for the self-propelled cart, which trails six paces behind the player.

Golfers can also navigate the robotic cart, which is made by FTR Systems, to the next tee while they finish putting.

“Someone ran up to me last week and said that my golf cart had broken free and was rolling through the parking lot,” said Richard Nagle, the sales manager for CaddyTrek in North America and Europe. “Most people just stop and stare. They're not used to this.”

FTR Systems does not disclose the proprietary technology it uses to power the CaddyTrek, which sells for $1,595, but Mr. Nagle said sales of the robot carriers had been strong, and the company had been rushing to meet orders in the United States and Europe.

A version of this special report appeared in print on December 10, 2012, on page B8 of the New York edition with the headline: Robots Are Nearing Reach of Consumers.