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UN Predicts Steep Rise in Domestic Robots 2004-10-21

Posted by clype in Gizmo, Statistics.

For decades, science fiction has promised a future in which life’s most mundane chores are carried out by robots.

Sadly, the clunky, wobbling automatons that have been wheeled out as examples of this brave new world have so far proved something of a disappointment.

  • But all that is about to end according to a report which predicts the number of robots in everyday use is set to soar seven-fold by 2007.

The paper, published yesterday by the United Nations, says that robots will be employed around the home to mow lawns, vacuum floors and manage other household chores as more consumers snap up smart machines.

And as well as helping out around the home, the latest generation of robots could even be recruited to help care for the elderly, carry out surgery and assist in fire-fighting operations.

The latest boom coincides with a record number of orders for industrial robots, said the UN’s annual World Robotics Survey. The report, issued by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the International Federation of Robotics, found that 607 000 automated domestic helpers were in use at the end of 2003, two-thirds of them purchased that year. Most of them — 570 000 – were robot vacuum cleaners, while sales of lawn mowing automatons had reached 37 000.

By the end of 2007, about 4.1 million domestic robots will probably be in use, the study said.

Vacuum cleaners will still make up the majority, but sales of window-washing and pool-cleaning robots are also set to take off, it predicted. Sales of robot toys, such as Sony’s canine AIBO, have also risen. The study said there are now about 692 000 ‘entertainment robots’ around the world.

Colin Angle, the chief executive of the United States company iRobot Corp, said many consumers had been introduced to the idea of household robots 40 years ago with “Rosie”, the mechanical housekeeper for the futuristic cartoon family “The Jetsons”. But until now robots have failed to live up to their promise.

‘Our biggest hurdle right now is scepticism,’ Mr.Angle said.

‘We are just at a point where robots are becoming affordable … and some of them can actually do real work.’

UNECE said household robots could soon compete with their industrial counterparts, which have dominated the figures since the body first began counting in 1990. Industrial robots have nonetheless continued to recover from the slump recorded in the 2001 study.

‘Falling or stable robot prices, increasing labour costs and continuously improving technology are major driving forces which speak for continued massive robot investment in industry,’ said Jan Karlsson, author of the 414-page study.

In the first half of 2004, business orders for robots were up 18 per cent on the same period a year earlier, mostly in Asia and North America. Japan still remains the most robotised economy, home to about half the world’s 800 000 industrial robots.

After several years in the doldrums, demand there jumped by 25 per cent in 2003. But Europe and North America are fast catching up, the study said. European Union countries were in second place, with 250 000 robots in operation by the end of last year, mostly in Germany, Italy and France. Demand from North American businesses rose by 28 per cent, with 112 000 robots in service by the end of last year.

The machines are also taking off in richer developing countries, including Brazil, China and Mexico, spurred by plummeting prices. Taking the global average, a robot sold in 2003 cost a quarter of what a robot with the same performance cost in 1990, the study found. It said that by 2007, world industrial robot numbers will probably reach at least one million.

The term ‘robot’ covers any machine that operates automatically to perform tasks in a human-like way, often replacing the human workers who did the job previously. In most cases, robots move under their own propulsion and do not need to be controlled by a human operator after they have been programmed.

Most industrial robots are used on assembly lines, chiefly in the car industry, but increasingly, companies are using them for other tasks, the study said. There are now about 21 000 ‘service robots’ in use, carrying out tasks such as milking cows, handling toxic waste and even assisting in operating theatres. The number is set to reach a total of 75 000 by 2007, the study said.

By the end of the decade, it added, robots will not only clean floors, mow lawns and guard homes, but also assist old and handicapped people with sophisticated interactive equipment, carry out surgery, inspect pipes and sites that are hazardous to people, fight fires and defuse bombs.


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