Despite LG’s Robotic Failure, 2018 is Shaping Up to Be the Year Home Robots Come to the Masses

Yesterday LG’s marketing director hit the headlines for the wrong reasons when his CES presentation of home robot Cloi went horribly wrong. After a promising start where the robot, pronounced kloh-ee, answered a number of queries and interacted with kitchen appliances, it stopped working, turning the presentation into cringe-worthy viewing that many have described as “disastrous”.

David VanderWaal, LG’s US marketing chief, attempted to make light of the situation, saying “Cloi doesn’t like me evidently”, but the incident will likely prompt many declarations that home robots are not yet ready for the mass market.

But looking at the wider spectrum of product unveilings at this year’s CES, it’s clear that home robots are making a move on the mass market in a big way, in many forms and for many applications. And if that translates into the product launches being promised, this coming Christmas could be dominated by robotic gifts.

LG’s home robot Cloi, which had a dreadful launch at CES. Image courtesy of LG

LG isn’t the only company offering humanoid home robots. Today also saw the launch of the Aeolus Robot, a multifunctional robot complete with an arm that – at least in theory – allows it to perform tedious household tasks such as vacuuming, mopping and tidying away items.

Integrated with Amazon Alexa and Google home, the robot has the ability to move freely around your home, and can recognise thousands of items and remember where it last saw them, meaning it should be able to help you find your missing keys.  Helpfully, it can also map your home’s layout and identify individual family members.

“Costing less than a family vacation overseas, the Aeolus Robot makes the dream of having a home robot a reality and frees up valuable time for you to do the things you want to do,” said Alexander Huang, Global CEO of Aeolus Robotics.

The Aeolus Robot is designed to realise the robot butler dream. Image courtesy of Aeolus Robotics

While Aeolus seems set to realise the home robot Jetsons dream, there are also a number of pseudo humanoid home robots with a similar form factor to LG’s Cloi. Indian startup Emotix, for example, announced the rollout of its child-focused companion robot Miko+ to the US market last week, which has a similarly compact and cute appearance, but is focused on providing learning and play experiences to growing children.

“Through extensive research and observation, we found that current generations of social robots did not address the unmet needs of parents to foster closer interactions between family members as well as integrating their involvement in their children’s learning and development process, “ said Sneh Vaswani, CEO and founder of emotix.

“We understood this conundrum facing parents and wanted to develop a social robot that would provide benefits to them on a number of levels, giving children a technology interface that becomes a strong value addition to and not a substitute for the family unit, and that also enables parents to actively participate in their child’s developmental education.”

Miko is designed specifically for children. Image courtesy of Emotix

Not all home robots attempt to mimic the human form. ShadeCraft, for example, has announced that it is releasing its robotic garden umbrella, Sunflower, to market this year. Charged by the sun and equipped with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, the umbrella is designed to create a Wi-Fi hotspot in your garden while tracking and responding to the sun to keep you in the shade. It also comes equipped with speakers, sensors and voice interaction, allowing you to provide audio for parties, monitor air quality, weather conditions and security and give voice commands.

“We felt that in order to introduce consumers to the concept of robotic objects co-existing in their environment, we needed to establish an identifiable and iconic object,” said Armen Gharabegian, CEO and founder of ShadeCraft.

“Although we have developed a whole series of robotic solutions for shade and other functions, with more to be announced in the near future, we believed that Sunflower meets the customers’ needs and desires.”

ShadeCraft’s multifunctional Sunflower robotic umbrella is the first of a line of non-humanoid robots to be launched by the company. Image courtesy of ShadeCraft

As with any CES, not all of the robots on show will make it to the physical and virtual shop shelves, with some undoubtedly destined to become vaporware.

However, with so many announcements being made in the home robotics space, it’s clear that technology is definitely moving us towards a world where having robots that help you in your daily lives is commonplace.

And with so many of us dreaming of home robots for so long, if they can deliver on their promises they are likely to prove hugely successful.

Origami-inspired muscles give soft robots superhero strength

The capabilities of soft robots have increased massively in the last ten years, but have often come with an unfortunate trade-off. While the ability of the robots to mimic natural organisms with their flexibility is impressive, such dexterity involves a reduction of strength in the materials used. However, researchers have now created origami-inspired artificial muscles that allow soft robots to lift objects that are up to 1000 times their own weight.

“We were very surprised by how strong the actuators [aka, “muscles”] were. We expected they’d have a higher maximum functional weight than ordinary soft robots, but we didn’t expect a thousand-fold increase. It’s like giving these robots superpowers,” said Dr Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT and one of the senior authors of a paper on the artificial muscles.

“Artificial muscle-like actuators are one of the most important grand challenges in all of engineering,” added Dr Rob Wood, corresponding author of the paper and Founding Core Faculty member of the Wyss Institute. “Now that we have created actuators with properties similar to natural muscle, we can imagine building almost any robot for almost any task.”

Developed by researchers at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University and MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), the new muscles use just water or air pressure to achieve their results.

They consist of an inner ‘skeleton’ that can be made of various materials, surrounded by air or fluid and sealed inside a plastic or textile bag that serves as the ‘skin’. By applying a vacuum to the inside of the bag, movement is initiated as the skin collapses onto the skeleton and the created tension drives motion.

“One of the key aspects of these muscles is that they’re programmable, in the sense that designing how the skeleton folds defines how the whole structure moves. You essentially get that motion for free, without the need for a control system,” said first author Dr Shuguang Li, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wyss Institute and MIT CSAIL.

Images courtesy of Shuguang Li / Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Removing the need for a control system means that the muscles can be both very compact and simple, thus making them more appropriate for use in mobile or body-mounted systems that cannot accommodate large or heavy machinery.

Moreover, they can not only generate about six times more force per unit area than mammalian skeletal muscle, but a single muscle can be constructed within ten minutes from materials costing less than a $1.

By powering the muscles with a vacuum, it allows them to be far safer than most other kinds of artificial muscle being tested as they have a lower risk of rupture, failure, and damage.

The muscles are also highly scalable and can even be built out of the water-soluble polymer PVA, meaning they could be used with minimal environmental impact or even as part of ingestible robots for targeted drug release.

Soft robots may soon be able to do far more than just mimic nature.