Beyond the Vacuum: Companion Robots Coming Home

BUDDY, by Blue Frog Robotics, is a family companion robot. (Photo: Blue Frog Robotics)

March 08, 2018      

In 2001, British manufacturer Dyson had an unusual innovation: a robotic vacuum. Turn it on, and let it sweep up dust, dirt and debris. Dyson never launched the vacuum, as it thought the price wouldn’t be well received, and companion robots were still science fiction.

“High disposable income and the need for convenience in the developed countries are boosting the demand of personal robots.”
— P&S Market Research

One year later, iRobot created a short run of vacuuming robots for the Christmas season, producing 50,000 units and eventually distributing them to about 4,000 retailers. Dyson later joined in, and today, there are many different robotic vacuums with improved technology at various prices. With acceptance of robot vacuums in people’s homes, there is growing demand for personal robots used as companions or for therapeutic purposes.

A Feburary 2017 report by P&S Market Research said the global personal robots market would reach $34.1 billion by 2022. While cleaning robots have the largest share of this market, demand for therapeutic and companion robots was also expected to grow.

Driving this trend is an aging population in developed countries, especially in Japan, the report stated: “The demand for humanoid robots that are useful for elderly people is expected to increase. High disposable income and the need for convenience in the developed countries are boosting the demand of personal robots in the developed countries.”

Lower costs for personal robots is another trend — the report says the average price of personal robots declined by about 27% between 2005 and 2014. Further declines by around 22% between 2015 and 2025 are expected, P&S said.

Here are some of the more recent companion robots aiming to enter the home:

Meet Buddy

BUDDY robot with elder

BUDDY includes fall detection features that can alert when an older family member falls. (Photo: Blue Frog Robotics)

Blue Frog Robotics’ Buddy is a companion robot for the family that “connects, protects, and interacts with each member of your family.” BUDDY is built on an open-source platform, allowing developers worldwide to help build applications.

Services that Buddy offers include home security (watching/monitoring the home), smart home (connecting lights, thermostats, etc.), mobile telepresence (sharing photos and videos), personal assistance (family calendar, information on weather), elder care (fall detection and medication reminders), and more.

The company currently has limited quantities of Buddy, but you can register on the company’s website to be notified when more are available.

Pets that are more than toys

Hasbro’s “Joy For All Companion” robotic pet is another introduction of a robot — albeit a different one — finding its way into the home. It’s not just for kids, though it can be. It may be cherished by adults as well for therapeutic purposes.

Elders with robotic dog from Hasbro

Hasbro’s Joy For All companion pets include either a robotic dog or cat. (Photo: Hasbro)

A lifelike cat or dog, complete with the look and feel of a well-groomed feline or puppy, sits on your lap. As you pet it, the dog or cat reacts. Put the cat on the couch, and it stretches, licks its paws, and acts like a cat — without any of the undesirable parts of owning a feline like veterinarian bills, feeding, or litter box cleaning.

But the robotic pets are also offering the same stress-relieving and companionship purpose beyond the home. Hasbro has donated many of the robots to the Meals on Wheels program, offering patrons a chance to have some companionship and help fight senior isolation.

More companion robots coming

At CES 2018, therapeutic and companion robots were in abundance. For instance, Intuition RoboticsElliQ robot for the elderly was named a CES Best of Innovation Winner in the Household category, and the company raised $6 million (for a total $22 million in funding).

ElliQ is an “active aging companion” appliance that has a swivel head for interacting with voice and tablets. The robot is currently beta testing in California and Florida, with production scheduled for the end of 2018.

 

Insurance giant Aflac also showed off its My Special Aflac Duck, a companion robot co-created by Sproutel that aims to help children fighting cancer. Patients can become the duck’s caretaker by feeding, bathing, and even pretending to give it chemotherapy through a tube attached to the duck’s chest. The company also produces Jerry the Bear, a companion robot for children with Type 1 diabetes.

 

When technologies align, robots are doing more than just vacuuming our home. They provide a service that is arguably the same as having a companion near us, being part of our friend network and bringing us, in different ways, new joy.