From medicine to military, machines finally arrive

By Michael Kanellos
Staff Writer, CNET
March 10, 4:00 AM PT

The robots are coming. And when they get here, they will take out the trash.

Mobile, intelligent robots that can perform tasks usually reserved for humans are starting to creep into mainstream society and could become a multibillion-dollar market in a few years.

iRobot says it has sold hundreds of thousands of units of the Roomba, a self-guided, self-propelled vacuum cleaner that sells for around $200, in just one year.

Other inventors are eyeing the health care market. Joe Engelberger, widely known as the father of robotics, is trying to get funding to build robots that will dress, cook for and generally take care of senior citizens. Home health care robots are being tested in Japan, while U.S. hospitals are already using machines to deliver charts, carry medicines or even assist in surgery.

“Nursing homes or live-in help is expensive, and you have personality conflicts,” Engelberger said. “The technology is available. It takes very good engineering, but it does not take invention.”

Another potentially large market exists in creating machines that can operate in hazardous or extreme environments. Workhorse Technologies, founded by Carnegie Mellon University professor William “Red” Whittaker, is working on robots that can map mine shafts. He came up with the idea after Pennsylvania’s Quecreek mine accident in 2002, in which nine miners were trapped for four days as the result of faulty maps.