Vanishing chores

Domestic robots challenge remaining household chore strongholds

By Morand Fachot

The demands of modern life mean that households rely more and more on appliances to carry out a variety of tasks. Furthermore, a rapidly ageing population in all developed countries needs aid, particularly to keep homes tidy. Dusting and washing floors are essential but laborious undertakings. Over the last decade, service robots have been developed for this purpose; International Standards have been central to their introduction.

Samsung Navibot robotic vacuum cleaner (Photo: Samsung) Samsung Navibot robotic vacuum cleaner (Photo: Samsung)

From Rosie to Roomba

Any mention of domestic robots usually conjures up images of anthropomorphic machines gliding throughout homes, cleaning floors, making beds and preparing meals and coffee: a combination of Rosie, the middle-aged domestic robot of the 1960s and 1980s Jetsons cartoon series, and Honda's Asimo robot.

However, current domestic robots look more like compact boxes than humanoids and are still mainly limited to cleaning and washing floors, yet these devices are complex and meeting with growing success. The world's first commercially-available vacuum cleaning robot, the Electrolux Trilobite, was introduced in 2001. Since then many other manufacturers have introduced similar devices.

The US (United States) company iRobot, which has been producing the Roomba series of vacuum cleaning robots since 2002, announced in February 2011 that it had sold six million of these machines. It launched Scooba, a floor washing robot, in 2006 and is now producing the sixth generation of Roombas.

Compact, but complex

Vacuum cleaning robots, like their floor-washing counterparts, have to be compact to cover the greatest possible range of surfaces (wood, tiles or carpets), clean corners and along walls, and reach under furniture. They must be able to move independently and negotiate their way around obstacles in rooms. Naturally they must also meet certain conditions as regards safety and performance. All these requirements make them complex devices and mean that a number of IEC TCs (Technical Committees) and SCs (Subcommittees) are involved in the preparation of International Standards for cleaning robots.

The safety of household appliances, including robots, is essential, IEC TC 61: Safety of household and similar electrical appliances, prepared an International Standard which covers safety aspect of vacuum cleaning robots. IEC 60335-2-2, Household and similar electrical appliances - Safety - Part 2-2: Particular requirements for vacuum cleaners and water-suction cleaning appliances, stresses that it "also applies to (…) automatic battery-powered cleaners".

Measuring performance

Measuring the performance of cleaning appliances is essential for both manufacturers and consumers. SC 59F: Surface cleaning appliances, established WG (Work Group) 5: Methods of measuring the performance of household cleaning robots. In view of the significant growth of the global market for cleaning robots, SC 59F found it essential to prepare IEC 60312, Vacuum cleaners for household use – Methods for measuring the performance.

This series of International Standards determines a number of parameters to assess the performance of cleaning robots as regards dust removal from hard floors and carpets. They include the volume of the dust container and dust emission. The measurement tests include a mobility trial that sees robots having to manoeuvre in a standard room that contains obstacles such as transitions between metal and wooden surfaces, thresholds, a rug, various pieces of furniture, a floor lamp, electrical cables and a heater.

Sensors and battery central to mobility

IEC 60312 also set test methods for navigation and operation time per battery charge.

Sensors are central to the operation and navigation of any type of robots, domestic robots in particular. Vacuum cleaning robots have a number of these – including pressure sensors, dirt sensors, "cliff detection" sensors (to prevent them from falling down stairs), virtual wall and infrared sensors – to allow them to navigate around the house and return to their charging station.

Cleaning robots are battery-powered, they are charged at a base station where they return when they need recharging. TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries, prepares International Standards for all secondary cells and batteries, irrespective of type or application.

Bright prospects

With an ageing population, the demands of modern life and higher labour costs, the market for service robots is promising. The Korean Ministry of Knowledge Economy estimates that the global sales of service robots will jump more than 26-fold to USD 85,5 billion in 2018 from USD 3,2 billion in 2008, and that it could reach USD 190 billion in 2020. Household robots account for nearly 64 % of the total number of service robots currently sold, with entertainment and teaching robots making up 35 % of the market

Current household cleaning robots have certain limitations and are still more expensive than their conventional counterparts. However, advances in sensors and electronics, in particular from the computer industry, will gradually make their way into service robots making them smarter, more capable and cheaper in coming years, and will extend their capabilities beyond cleaning tasks.

In an article published in January 2007, Bill Gates, the co-founder and chairman of Microsoft, predicted that the robotics industry would develop in much the same way that the computer business did in the 1970s, and that robots would become ubiquitous and enter every home. A prospect made more realistic thanks in no small part to household cleaning robots.

Samsung Navibot robotic vacuum cleaner (Photo: Samsung) Samsung Navibot robotic vacuum cleaner (Photo: Samsung)
iRobot Scooba floor washing robot at work (Photo: iRobot) iRobot Scooba floor washing robot at work (Photo: iRobot)
Layout of standard room for testing cleaning robot mobility (IEC) Layout of standard room for testing cleaning robot mobility (IEC)