2004 June 01 Tuesday
Siemens Dressman Shirt Ironing Robot

Picture a mannequin. Siemens has made an automated shirt-ironing device shaped like the chest and arms of a mannequin (see the picture here) that one places a shirt on. Then the mannequin inflates and applies hot steam to a shirt and that takes out the wrinkles. The price for sale in Germany, €1,000, in Euros probably translates into a price one or two hundred dollars above a thousand dollars when it reaches the US. (same article here)

The main objective of the Dressman robot is to dry and press shirts. On placing a damp shirt on the ironing figure, this dummy inflates with hot air in its interior, and thus puffs the shirt up, removing creases drying the garment (it has to be previously wet and undergone a spin-dry in a washing machine). The device has a heater box inside with a number of different resistance elements. While we are placing the shirt on it, this box stores up heat in such a way that, when the garment is positioned and we press the start button, the whole ironing dummy fills with hot air which presses and dries the shirt. Moreover, the device has an air filter which prevents dirt entering the ironing dummy.

Since it isn't really a mechanical device calling it a robot may seem to stretch the definition of robot. After all, a dishwashing machine automates a human task and yet we do not think of it as a robot. Still, it does something that many may have expected would require a more complex robot to perform.

From a Siemens press release:

Stressed-out homemakers can now take a break and leave the iron in the closet. A new product from Siemens called "dressman" will soon at least take over the chore of ironing shirts. An Emnid survey confirms something we already know from personal experience: Ironing is one of the household chores that people hate the most. It also eats into precious free time, for even experienced ironers need about eight minutes to press a shirt. This new ironing assistant promises to deliver perfectly ironed shirts in no time. In Germany Siemens sold about 4.000 units within a few months. Now the company starts to market the device in other countries. The equipment looks like the upper body of the mannequins you see in store windows. A freshly washed shirt is simply pulled over the device, and any wrinkles are smoothed out. Twelve fully automatic programs for various types of shirts and materials take care of the rest: The shell made of balloon silk literally inflates itself with hot air and gets the shirts into shape. And the process is easy on the shirts because it uses low temperatures. Broken buttons and unsightly stains will also become things of the past, and additional functions can dry wet jackets or air out sports coats. Up to now, such automatic ironing systems have been available only for professional cleaners and laundries. These use high pressure and are hard on the material as a result. They are also big and expensive. The dressman, which costs about €1,000, is not exactly inexpensive, but it works very economically. The operating costs amount to only five cents per shirt. By comparison, it costs about €2 at the cleaners — not including the cost of getting there. (IN 2004.02.6)

4,000 of these puppies have already been sold in Germany and from a press release date it appears it went on sale in February 2004 there. Are there any German readers who have one who can comment on how well they work? Siemens is starting to introduce this device in other countries. Anyone outside of Germany seen one for sale yet?

This leads to the obvious question: Is Siemens going to produce a Pantsman for ironing pants? One complication there is the crease that we expect pants to have ironed into them. Anyone have a home pants pressing machine?

Take home lesson? It is possible to automate additional common household tasks without waiting for the development of artificially intelligent robots.

By Randall Parker    2004 June 01 05:55 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
2004 March 31 Wednesday
House May Be Automatically Built In 24 Hours

A USC professor is developing technology that will allow a complete house to be built in 24 hours.

Degussa AG, one of the world’s largest manufacturers and suppliers of construction materials, will collaborate in the development of a USC computer-controlled system designed to automatically “print out” full-size houses in hours.

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Behrokh Khoshnevis of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Sciences Institute has been developing his automated house-building process, called “Contour Crafting,” for more than a year.

Khoshnevis believes his system will be able to construct a full-size, 2,000- square-foot house with utilities embedded in 24 hours. He now has a working machine that can build full-scale walls and is hoping to actually construct his first house in early 2005.

Contour Crafting uses crane- or gantry-mounted nozzles, from which building material - concrete, in the prototype now operating in his laboratory - comes out at a constant rate.

Moveable trowels surrounding the nozzle mold the concrete into the desired shape, as the nozzle moves over the work.

Robots and other automated equipment have increased factory automation so much that factories are a dwinding source of all jobs. The next big target for automation has been and continues to be office work. Office automation is being addressed with the development of huge amounts of software and information systems.

What never seem to get as much attention is how to automate all the other places where people work aside from the office and the factory. Construction automation is an obvious big target. One approach is to do prefabrication of walls and other building pieces in highly automated factories. Then the prefabricated parts can be shipped to the construction site. But automated methods to doing construction at a site have advantages because they avoid the difficulty of shipping large walls, floors, and ceilings to a site. Also, automated site construction techniques allow more flexibility in site design.

By Randall Parker    2004 March 31 01:44 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
2003 May 19 Monday
Useful Home Robots For Lawn Mowing And Vacuuming

When my brother recently told me how much he likes the $200 Roomba home robot vacuum cleaner it served as a reminder that we are living in the era when, after decades of science fiction speculation, personal robot servants are finally starting to make an impact on everyday life. In another sign that robots are beginning to invade the home front the Toro iMow robotic mower is available for about $500.00.

Friendly Robotics of Israel makes a similar product for about $600 called the Robomower.

Robomower stays within the boundaries of a property using a thin wire perimeter placed on the edges of a lawn -- something akin to the invisible fence sensor technology used to contain pets.

The Robomower's brain records the lawns dimensions and obstacles, then operates on a computer-run navigation system until the job is done.

There do not appear to be (unless you dear reader can point to any others) any other major useful types of home robot products at this point in time.

While less useful from the standpoint of saving labor, Sony continues to come out with improvements for very popular the Aibo robot dog.

Also, in conjunction with AIBO's fourth anniversary, Sony will be releasing a sleek, new cobalt-blue colored AIBO Entertainment Robot [ERS-210A/LI] dubbed AIBO Cyber-Blue. Both AIBO EYES (suggested retail price $119.99) and AIBO Cyber-Blue (suggested retail price $1,299) can be purchased by visiting the Sony Style Stores (New York and San Francisco), Sony Gallery (Chicago), select retail outlets nationwide or by visiting http://www.us.aibo.com beginning May 20.

With AIBO EYES software, the four-legged robot can now be controlled remotely via e-mail commands. Users can send an e-mail message to the robot and receive a JPEG image with their computer or other mobile communication device, capturing a picture of what AIBO sees allowing them, for example, to view their home or children while away.

In addition, AIBO EYES software will allow family and friends to communicate through audio messages. For instance, AIBO owners can now send a message command from a remote device, such as a PC or mobile communication device, to AIBO and have the robot deliver a pre-recorded message aloud such as congratulations! Further, AIBO EYES will also enable owners to remotely e-mail message commands to AIBO and have the robot perform selected songs, such as When the Saints Come Marching In and Ode to Joy.

Speaking as someone who loves real biological dogs the idea of getting a robot dog strikes me as somehow disgusting. But Aibo has sold over 100,000 Aibos. Go figure.

One use of the Aibo robots is to compete in robot dog soccer leagues run by academic groups to test new software.

Rigged for soccer, the dogs communicate by radio and are fitted with tongue-depressor-shape "memory sticks" that slip inside the dogs' abdomens and contain all the team's codes. In Carnegie Mellon's software, dogs trade off being the leader depending on which one is closest to the ball. The leader goes for the ball, while teammates deploy themselves in support positions.

Robotics researchers find that competing to develop better soccer robots is accelerating the development of better robotic software.

Robotic soccer has been embraced by many researchers in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics because it forces them to find ways for robots to learn how to work together and to do so at real-life speed.

There is even an International RoboCup competition that will be held in Padua Italy this summer.

Carnegie Mellon researcher Hans Moravec sees home servant robots with larger repertoires coming around 2020.

By 2020, "universal robots" will arrive. They can prepare an egg, put out the dishes and clean the table. At this stage, robots execute applications with "reptilian inflexibility," Moravec says, unable to deal with the unexpected.

My guess is that some of the tasks envisioned to be performed by home robots will no longer even need to be done by the time robots that can do them become available. Take the ironing of clothes for instance. It seems far more likely that nanotechnological developments of new textiles will result in clothes that do not need ironing and which can be cleaned far more easily. Imagine nanotech clothes that can be switched into a mode where they become repellant to dirt. You might pass clothes thru an electromagnetic field and as the clothes dropped thru the field the dirt would all come off. Other nanotechnological advances could lead to the development of self-cleaning shelves and carpets that transported the dirt to dirt collectors.

Moravec does not expect to see artifically intelligent robots that can engage in human-like abstract reasoning until 2050. Therefore, we have decades to live yet before we have to start worrying about robots taking over the world.

Joel Burdick, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology and member of the Cal Tech Robotics Group, sees five technological obstacles to the greater use of robots.

According to Burdick, robots will become a part of every day life once five technological hurdles are cleared: computing power, sensor technology, power supply, motors, and smarts.

The first 4 obstacles that Burdick cites will all gradually fall because of technological trends that are being driven by much larger existing markets for other types of products such as laptop computers, cars, and consumer electronics devices. Microprocessor speeds will keep advancing because Moore's Law has at least several years to run yet. Even as current lithographic techniques for making semiconductor circuits reach their physical limits nanotechnological approaches to making electronic circuits will probably allow processors to keep getting faster. Newer and better generations of sensors will also continue to be made. A lot of work is going into better power supplies to satisfy the demands for a large assortment of consumer electronics and transportation applications. Motors similarly have many other existing uses.

In the long run software is the main class of problems that the robotics researchers will need to solve. Most of the other problems will be solved by scientists and engineers working to make better products for a wide range of applications. The biggest question in the long term is whether the development of better algorithms or the development of faster processors will be the rate-limiting factor for the development of artificial intelligence.

For more reading on robots the Robotics.com site has a nice page of links to sources of information about all aspects of robotics.

By Randall Parker    2003 May 19 08:09 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
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