Home & Living

The Droids Are Coming

A few robots are making it into the home, and a slew more are on the way.

Outside Ed Mullin’s historic farmhouse in northwestern Baltimore County, the last flakes of a snowstorm fall. Out front, oblivious to the icy wind, Angus the robot is shoveling snow. (Angus is a name Mullin hoped to give one of his five children—vetoed by his wife.)

This is Mullin’s dream, but not yet his reality. “This is what I need on a freezing day when my driveway is covered in snow,” he muses. “I would definitely like that robot.” The technology is already here, though, so he thinks a real Angus may not be that far off.

Mullin should know. He’s the founder of the Baltimore Robotics Center, a nonprofit based in Southwest Baltimore that helps young people in the city get involved in robotics and prepare for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. The 51-year-old father of five was inspired to launch the center after he saw his children join a robotics league and start to win design competitions, revealing what he calls the huge, untapped resource of “geek talent” in Baltimore. (Their inventions included an anti-deer robot that will drive around your property yelling and squirting water so Bambi won’t eat your foliage.)

Mullin’s personal wish list: a gutter-cleaning robot, a robot to help with household chores, and a dog-walking robot. “Why are they making robotic lawn mowers, but not ones to clear the ice?” he asks. “Grass is not critical. They’re making the robots that are easy to make.” But he’s out to change that.

The future robot that fellow geek Noah Cowan has in mind is “folding the family’s laundry, while I’m shooting hoops.” Cowan, who is deputy director of the Robotics Center at The Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering, says that while you won’t yet see any androids wandering the halls of the engineering school, you will see limbs maneuvering in the laboratory, a sign of things to come very soon.

Cowan, 44, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, predicts that there are some jobs, for instance, that we will be more than happy to lose to nonhuman devices—especially the dirty and dangerous jobs—but other tasks will be with us for a long time. “It’s really hard for a robotic system to collect garbage,” he says. “It needs a human’s natural intelligence to do specific tasks—it’s not an assembly line.”

Meanwhile, in a laboratory at the University of Maryland, College Park, Baxter the robot is learning how to cook by watching a Julia Child YouTube video. But don’t give up those microwave-ready meals just yet, as this robot is still in a developmental stage, says Sarah Bergbreiter, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

In her downtime, Bergbreiter, 39, acting director at the Maryland Robotics Center, is just like the rest of us and has household chores to attend to, but some robotics are already at work in her home. “We do have a Roomba vacuum, which is great, because I have a 1- and 4-year-old, so watching it is also entertaining for them,” she says. “We also have robot toys that they like to play with.” And, like Mullin and Cowan, she sees robotics advancing very quickly beyond their current military and police role, such as dealing with bombs and mines. At the Robotics Center, she specializes in developing microrobots, and her bug-size inventions may help in future surgical procedures, disaster relief, or even with humble tasks like locating mice in the attic.

“We’re on the verge of a revolution in robotics,” says Mullin. “And some city will be Robot City. It would be really great if that place was Baltimore.” So, okay, the snow shoveling ’bot may not be here yet, but there are some you can buy.

The Companion Robot

Unless you’re in Japan or Taiwan, the closest you’ll come stateside to a companion robot is ASUS’ Zenbo. Imagine if R2-D2 and C-3PO had a baby—Zenbo offers a cute introduction to the world of companion robots. Called the ‘smart-home assistant’ by its manufacturer, Zenbo is a conversationalist, providing company for those in need and entertainment for the kids with a song and dance. Zenbo is set to hit Baltimore stores this year and will be priced from $599.

Get Your Mind in the Gutter

Gutter-cleaning robots, above, don’t come with a climbing function, but they will make their way along the path of your gutter to keep it clear of debris. One of them is the iRobot model, about $300 at big-box stores and online.

The Battle of the Robot Vacs

Since its 2002 release, the Roomba vacuum has been challenged by competitors including the Dyson Eye 360, which maps out the best route in your home, but says no to stairs.

Available at most big-box stores, robotic vacuum cleaners range from the budget Chuwi iLife V7 to Samsung’s powerful VR9000 POWERbot Robotic Vacuum. Priced from $142 to $929.

The Lawn-Mowing Robot

It’s hot enough to fry an egg outside, but you can operate the robot lawn mower without stepping outside or getting off your porch.

Robot lawn mowers come with a navigational system to help manage various types of terrain. Though some models can operate in the rain, sensors on other models shut them down during a shower and start up when the area is dry. At a hardware store near you, models include the Robomow and Landroid. Priced from $1,000 to $2,500.

Rock-a-Baby Robot

Rock-a-bye baby takes on a new tune in the 21st century, with automatons helping to care for the little one. “I remember walking in and being stunned by watching that,” says Bergbreiter. Seats and cradles include the mamaRoo and the Snoo Robo-Cradle, which will rock your infant to sleep. The manufacturer makes the tempting pitch to sleep-deprived parents that it’s “like your own personal night nurse—for under $7 a night.” Prices range from $219 to $1,200.

The Butler Robot

MobileRobots Inc. makes one model, the Agent 007, that moves around with a security camera looking for intruders and challenging them with voice commands. But more fun are two other models, the Jeeves and BrewskiBot, which use similar technology to shuttle drinks to party guests. They’re a bit pricey, though, at $31,000 and up.

The Dog Robot

True, this thing might suck all of the warm and fuzzy socialization out of pet ownership. But what about a dog that ditches all the dirty habits—scratching fleas, “accidents,” and chewing up your shoes, for instance—but keeps the fun characteristics and walks itself? CHiP the robot dog comes with an adoption certificate and a SmartBand so he, she, or it can recognize you, making CHiP, according to its breeder—er, manufacturer—“an intelligent and affectionate pup . . . always aware and ready to play.” Like real-life dogs, how you respond shapes the behavior, so, supposedly, no two CHiPs are ever alike. CHiP retails from $142.96.

Nanda Clocky

This is an alarm clock on wheels—and with an attitude: You get just one chance to snooze before it rolls out of your bedroom and around the house, forcing you to get up, track it down, and make it shut up. Typically $30 to $40.