Building Better Robots

Commercial computer hardware is the key to building a reliable robot, from fast processors to cheap flash memory and high-capacity hard drives, according to robotics experts.

Products such as the Cell processor, developed for Sony’s Playstation 3 video game console, will provide the processing power needed to bring robots to a mass market, said Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, during an April conference at Boston University. (iRobot makes Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner, and PackBot, a military robot that disables booby traps and land mines.)

Another crucial ingredient for robotics design is wireless technology such as WiMax, important for robots to be able to exchange video and other data with their owners. “The core of a robot could ultimately be a cell phone,” Angle said. Mobile phones combine many ¿factors of robotic design, including geolocation and broadband networking.

Robots serve niche markets, with annual sales of about $5.5 billion for industrial robots (the type that automotive companies use to weld and paint cars) and about $1 billion for robots used in education, entertainment and cleaning homes. The robotics industry could grow by finding applications in new sectors, said Dan Kara, president and cofounder of Robotics Trends, a research company.

For example, at least five companies have built robots to mow the grass outside their owners’ homes. Once these companies develop better battery life and safety procedures, they could capture a portion of the $23 billion lawn-care market.

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