August 29, 2014      

At first glance, the modest ranch houses lining Partridge Lane in Fairfield, Connecticut don?t appear to be at the cutting edge of a domestic revolution.

Then, step inside number 214, Susan Szudora?s house. Three years ago, Szudora purchased a Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner to help clean her four-bedroom house. After a few initial snafus, Szudora?s Roomba soon became a staple of her ? and husband Ron?s ? twice-weekly regimen for cleaning the house they share with their 20 year old daughter, her daughter?s fiancee, two miniature schnauzers, and a golden retriever.

Last month Szudora forked over $400 to purchase the Winbot window-cleaning robot. Busy Interstate 95 is a mile away, and the Winbot does a superb job of keeping the two-dozen windows on the Szudora house grime free.

?When I was growing up, I?d watch the Jetsons every Saturday morning,? Szudora muses. ?My favorite character was Rosie the robot. I thought, wow! It would be great to have a machine clean my house for me. Never in a million years would I have predicted it would happen someday in my lifetime.?

Automating the commonplace

Today, robots can be found in practically every facet of everyday life – from robots that perform domestic chores to those that act as virtual warehouse assistants, to devices that assist in delicate surgery. And yet, the home remains a last frontier for robots largely because people?s houses are among the most difficult environments robots ever encounter.

Unlike, say, a factory floor or a surgical suite, households tend to be haphazard. ?There?s always lots of stuff lying about ? books, clothing, newspapers, DVDs? you name it,? says Tim Gifford, scientist in residence at the Connecticut Science Center and CEO of Movia Robotics.

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Advances in navigation technology and more robust hardware and software capabilities have combined to make robotics more viable for personal care and household uses, Gifford notes. ?We?re really just now on the cusp of much more widespread applications for consumer robotics, and it is following the classic technological pattern,? Gifford says. ?As we gain more experience and knowledge in a technology, the cost of that technology decreases and we?re able to design much more capable equipment as a result.?

Lately, the financial markets have begun to take notice. The Robo-Stox Global Robotics & Automation exchange traded fund (NASDAQ: ROBO) posted a return of 8.3 percent during the short time since its inception in October, 2013 through January, compared to 5.3 percent for the S&P 500 during the same period.

Certain companies have proved to be hands-down stars in the equity markets. Consumer robotics leader iRobot?s(NASDAQ: IRBT) revenue growth is forecast to grow 22 percent this year and 23 percent for next year; its cash on hand for the end of the last quarter was $182.7 million and the company has no debt.

Dangerous duty

Visit to Arthur Freed?s White Plains, New York, house, and you can understand some of what drives the growth of household robotics. At 84, he?s reached an age when many of his peers move to condos or senior complexes. This retired engineer still enjoys doing his own home-maintenance chores, which in leafy Westchester County means climbing a ladder several times each year to clean the gutters.

Freed?s daughter, Lisa Anne Freed, works as an engineer at iRobot in Massachusetts. Two years ago she told her dad about a new gutter-cleaning robot called the Looj. The elder Freed snapped one up ? and he?s glad he did. ?I?ve made it through two leaf seasons,? he says. ?The Looj does a terrific job.?

Although Freed must still climb the ladder to place the device in the gutter being cleaned, he doesn?t have to move, reposition, or climb the ladder again. ?That saves a lot of time and reduces the potential for accidents,? Freed says. ?My wife thinks 80-something people have no business doing certain household chores, including gutter cleaning. While I disagree, the Looj is a great compromise for us.?

The boom in health and longevity ? including record numbers of people living well into their 80s, 90s and beyond ? has definitely sparked an interest in robotics. Just as robotic devices have performed amazing medical feats in recent years, health providers now turn to robotics for assistance in managing medical conditions that involve limited mobility.

New face for home care?

When Sir James Dyson invested $8.2 million in a new robotics laboratory, he wasn’t just concerned about being left in the proverbial dust by the Roomba and other robotic vacuum cleaners. This new lab focuses on equipping machines with the intelligence to assist people with everyday tasks ? whatever those might be.

In fact, Movia?s CEO Gifford sees a new era emerging in which robotic devices will perform key caretaking roles for people who are elderly or incapacitated. For starters, they?ll perform some of the routine household tasks. Such robots will also provide a telepresence tool for people who confined to their homes, interacting with doctors and other providers and monitoring compliance with medication and other therapies.

Last but certainly not least, those same robots will ultimately be able to do some of the routine household tasks that will enable these people to live in a home setting. Moreover, exoskeletons, such as Ekso Bionic?s will help restore mobility to people such as stroke patients.

?If you have limited mobility, the cost of remaining in your own home and getting services there is always much lower than it is in a nursing home,? says Gifford, whose own company develops robots that assist teachers and therapists who work with children. Robots that provide elder-care services are a logical extension of this same concept.

?In the same way as we create robotic devices for schools and therapy settings, we aren?t trying to replace people with robots ? but in an era where budgets are always severely stretched, robots might enable providers to serve greater numbers of people,? says Gifford.

Back to the Szudora house on Partridge Lane: Last year, Susan underwent knee-replacement surgery on both her knees, with mixed results. As an RN, who is on her feet a lot, she has some familiarity with exoskeletal devices and the assist that they offer.

Athough she doesn?t plan to purchase such equipment anytime soon…she’s plenty glad that such aids are at least available when needed.