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Personal Robots of the Present and Future

on Mon, 01/21/2013 - 19:47

The Jetsons had their robot-maid Rosie. The Family Robinson on Lost in Space had a Class-M Model B9 to consult in dangerous situations and keep them protected, as well as entertained. Dr. Edward Morbius and his daughter Alta, meanwhile, had Robbie, who was capable of synthesizing lead alloy and transporting heavy sheets of the material without breaking a sweat in the 1950s film classic Forbidden Planet. Although those three infamous robots are the works of science fiction, real-world robots designed to do basic household chores and offer assistance in the service industry may not be as far off as one might think—and may even someday originate from Pittsburgh.

Bossa Nova Robotics, which is headquartered out San Francisco but has its research and development unit located in the Strip District, introduced mObi in late October 2012, a commercial “ballbot” that is capable of rolling a ball and maneuvering its way around people and furniture. Although that may not sound impressive when compared to the likes of Robbie the Robot, Bossa Nova Robotics chief technology officer Sarjourn Skaff told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review on January 19, 2013, that mObi is just the first step towards creating “guide” robots for airports, museums and shopping centers.

Bossa Nova Robotics is actually just one of numerous companies around the nation working on robotic assistants, many of whom already have working single-purpose robots available for the public to purchase. iRobot out of Massachusetts, for instance, has the vacuuming Roomba, while California company Willow Garage has their higher-end PR2 robot, which is capable of serving drinks and folding the laundry. Because Carnegie Mellon University’s prestigious Robotics Institute is located in the Steel City, Pittsburgh has its own budding robot community that not only includes Bossa Nova Robotics but RE2 Inc., based out of Lawrenceville, that primarily focusses on using robots for national defense purposes.

Then there’s 4Moms, also in the Strip District, which specializes in child care products but has likewise gotten into the robot business with their mamaRoo, a moving robotic seat that mimics the motions that parents use to soothe their crying infants. Despite the success of the product, however, 4Moms co-founder Henry Thorne told the Tribune Review that he remains skeptical of such devices. “My experience with personal robots is that they lack a raison d‘être, a reason to be,” he explained, adding that when he sees new devices like Bossa Nova Robotics’ mObi, he rhetorically asks, “What’s it for?”

Although there may not be an adequate answer to that question as of yet, the time may not be that far off when robots do indeed take over many of our daily household chores. For all we know, after all, mObi may actually be the great-great-grandfather of Rosie from The Jetsons.

Anthony Letizia (January 21, 2013)

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