Domestic Robots: High-Tech House Helpers

Think you could use some help around the house? Here's a look at the latest in robot servants.

Need Some Help?

Last week, April 7-15, 2012, was the third annual National Robotics Week, a celebration held to recognize the United States as a leader in robotics development, educate the public about robotics' impact on society, encourage increased research-and-development funding for robotics, and inspire students to pursue careers in robotics and other science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

Robots aren't just experimental these days--they can be quite practical, even around the house. We looked at the latest in robot servants, and picked out more than 15 useful bots that can handle everything from washing your windows to sending you a text message if an intruder enters your house when you're away.

Floor-Cleaning Robots

Mint Plus (upper left) is the latest in Mint's lineup of hard-floor cleaners that use Swiffer or other disposable cleaning cloths to dry-sweep (a maximum run time of 4 hours/1000 square feet) or a reusable microfiber cloth to wet-mop (a maximum run time 2.5 hours/350 square feet).

Mint Plus | Available at Bed Bath & Beyond or Amazon | $300

Designed for pet owners and allergy sufferers, the Neato XV-21 (bottom left) promises the most powerful suction of any robotic vacuum cleaner and offers a specially designed filter that retains more than three times the amount of fine dust particles compared with standard filters. It also uses a laser map to clean the room efficiently, using a straight-line back-and-forth pattern.

Neato XV-21 | Releasing in May; available for preorder on | $429

The iRobot Scooba 230 Floor Washing Robot (right) is great for germophobes because its small size allows it to clean in tight spaces (such as around and behind toilets); the maker says it can kill 97 percent of germs and bacteria, too. Even though it can also clean under cabinets, some users recommend using a larger Scooba in the kitchen.

iRobot Scooba 230 Floor Washing Robot | $280

Lawn-Mowing Robots

The Husqvarna Automower 230 ACX (left) is the company's top-of-the-line model, suitable for complicated and uneven lawns that are up to three-quarters of an acre in size. It's outfitted with an upgraded antitheft alarm, a backlit keypad and display, and a PIN-code lock. It runs for 90 minutes on a 45-minute charge, and can handle a 35 percent incline.

Husqvarna Automower 230 ACX | $2700

According to the makers, the LawnBott LB3510 (right) can mow a lawn as large as 40,000 square feet, can handle a hill inclined up to 27 degrees, and can run for more than 4 hours despite taking only 2.5 hours to charge.

LawnBott LB3510 | $3999

Security Robots

Gostai's Jazz Security robot has a night-vision-capable wide-angle camera that detects movements and intruders. It can patrol places and shoot video of suspicious activities, too, and alert you via email or text message; you can check the stored history of past alerts and videos via the Web. You can also configure it to go into action at specific times of the day.

Gostai Jazz Security | Contact the company for pricing

Home-Telepresence Robots

Gostai's Jazz Connect (shown here) is a telepresence robot that can move around in a remote location and let you communicate with people there via its camera, speaker, and microphone.

Gostai Jazz Connect | Contact Gostai for pricing

Through another remote-controlled telepresence robot called VGo, anyone can visit a distant location and explore it as if they were physically present. It lets health-care workers check on patients easily, for instance, and kids who are homebound because of injuries, illnesses, or physical challenges can go to school via their VGo.

VGo | About $5000

Phone-Powered Robots for Fun and Games

Romo (shown here) is a cute little robot that employs your smartphone as its brain. By using another mobile device and a cross-platform app, you can drive it, make it produce animated facial expressions, direct it to dance, or turn it into a spybot.

Romotive Romo | $149

Through your iPhone and a free app, the Bandai Aibo Smartpet--a descendant of the original Sony Aibo robot dog--can come to life. The new Smartpet bonds with you via its facial expressions, and you can make it do tricks with your voice or by moving in front of your phone's camera. The Smartpet also works as an alarm clock and as a hands-free phone.

Bandai Aibo Smartpet | Currently available only in Japan | About $70

Window-Washing Robots

E.ziclean Windoro is a robot window cleaner that uses two magnetic modules to navigate your windows as it sprays cleaning solution onto microfiber pads to wash them. It covers just over 1601 square feet per charge.

E.ziclean Windoro | €499 ($654) plus about €37 ($49) extra for shipping to the United States

Outdoor Cleaning Robots

The iRobot Verro 550 Power Scrub (left) is a pool-cleaning robot that scrubs your in-ground pool from the floor to the waterline in 3 hours, cleans and circulates more than 70 gallons of water per minute, and removes debris as small as 2 microns (2 millionths of a meter) in size.

iRobot Verro 550 Power Scrub | $1099

Hate cleaning gutters? Reluctant to do all the ladder moving that the job entails? iRobot's Looj 155 Gutter Cleaning Robot (right) blasts through debris, clogs, and sludge in your gutters, and brushes them clean.

iRobot Looj 155 Gutter Cleaning Robot | $170

Toy Robots

Calling the 23-inch-tall Aldebaran NAO robot (shown here) a toy is a stretch, considering how advanced it is. It does do toylike things, such as dance and play soccer. What makes NAO different from regular robot toys, however, is that it uses facial recognition, speaks in eight languages, recognizes speech, and picks itself up if knocked over. Plus, it's adorable--be sure to check out some video of NAO in action. The designers at Aldebaran Robotics are working on a general-public version of NAO, expected out later in 2012; current versions are used in research and education.

Interested in other amazing toy robots? One unnamed remote-controlled robot (which its creator WowStuff touts as "The Greatest Toy in the Universe!") walks on six legs and has attachments that can fire foam darts, discs, or table tennis balls. It is expected to be available later in 2012. WowStuff is currently holding a naming contest; if your suggested name is chosen, you'll win a robot of your very own.

Wearable Robots

Ekso Bionics is a remarkable company because it makes exoskeletons (wearable robots) that are helping paralyzed people walk. After conducting studies in which all eligible patients--63 of them--were able to walk, on average, more than 200 steps the first time they wore the Ekso, the company delivered the first commercial unit of its exoskeleton to Denver's Craig Hospital.

Cat Litter Box Robots

Litter-Robot II is an automatic self-cleaning litter box that filters clumps out into a built-in waste receptacle that you can line with an ordinary plastic bag. If you have one cat, the company says you can go for about a week before emptying the built-in waste drawer.

Users report having to buy 50 percent less clumping litter. And since dirty litter sits in the box for only about 7 minutes (to give it just enough time to clump), you shouldn't ever get that nasty litter box smell.

Litter-Robot II | $340

Robot Alarm Clock

The Clocky Robotic Alarm is for people who have difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. You can set it to let you snooze once--but after that, the fun begins. Once your snooze time is up, this trickster will shriek loudly enough to make your blood curdle, and then it will jump off your nightstand with the screen flashing and roll around your room until you crawl out of bed, grab the little pest, and make it shut up.

Clocky Robotic Alarm | $50 to $60

Make Your Own Robot

Using iRobot Create (left)--a mobile robot platform that makes use of the technology that moves the iRobot floor cleaners around--an artist and a roboticist teamed up last year to build a robot fitted with light and sound sensors so that a plant could move itself around to get its own water and sunlight. Give the Create a try, and you might just dream up something equally ingenious.

iRobot Create Programmable Robot | $130

TurtleBot (right), developed by Willow Garage, takes the iRobot Create even further and adds a Kinect camera, a netbook, and a gyro so that you can create a robot to explore your house, build 3D pictures, bring you food, take panoramic photographs, and more. You can mount additional hardware on TurtleBot to get it to do all sorts of interesting things.

TurtleBot Open-Source Robot Development Kits | Available for $1499, or less if you have your own iRobot Create, netbook, or Kinect

A Glimpse Into the Future: Kitchen Robots

James and Rosie, two PR2 robots developed by the Technical University of Munich and Willow Garage, cook pancakes and sausages, and they recently added making sandwiches and stove popcorn to their skill sets.

What's interesting is that none of the steps involved in preparing these foods are preprogrammed. The robots understand what steps are necessary, and then break those steps down into actions. This capability is important, because programmers don't want to be endlessly coding instructions for every action the robots need to perform.

Robots in the lab of the Technical University of Munich | See James and Rosie in action

A Glimpse Into the Future: Decluttering Robot

HERB is a robot in development in the Personal Robotics Lab of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. HERB, which excels in cluttered and uncertain environments, has advanced manipulation capabilities and can open doors, pick up objects, clean tables, reconfigure clutter, and use both of its arms synchronously to pick up heavy or large objects. Someday HERB will do complex manipulation tasks in the home, and perform the duties of caregivers for the elderly or the disabled.

Information about HERB (PDF) | Follow HERB on Facebook

A Glimpse Into the Future: Robot Pal

According to the makers of Romeo, this humanoid robot, when marketed to consumers in the next few years, will be able to work for people who need help in the home. It will be able to open and close doors; grasp objects such as bottles, glasses, and keys; and help people move around and assist them if they fall. With its human-friendly persona, Romeo should be able to comprehend what people say, carry out simple conversations, and understand human intentions and emotions so that it knows what it should do.

Information about Romeo | See Romeo in action

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by PCWorld's Editors