The Roomba has been cleaning apartment floors for years now, but its creator sees a future where the popular household robot carries out far more useful chores. "Consumer research tells us that laundry is the number one household task that people spend their time on, so a laundry robot would be on top of the list," said iRobot CTO Paolo Pirjanian in an interview with MIT Technology Review. But he conceded it'll be some time before we're handing off laundry duty.
Still, by the sounds of it, the company is making some very real progress. When it comes to navigation and helping robots understand their surroundings, Pirjanian said "the next generation that we’re working on uses a camera combined with inertial sensors like in a cell phone. It uses photos as landmarks for navigation." When combined with 3D sensors, this approach could help robots see and map out your home in extraordinary detail.
That can enable more autonomy for a robot because it can understand things like where a door or chair leg is; it could allow robots to understand the environment all the way down to the level of individual objects. That kind of map also provides a common language for the robot and human to talk through. I can say: "Stay out of this room," "mop the kitchen on Tuesdays," or even "find this book."
Giving robots enough onboard memory to recognize every object in your home is a difficult (and costly) challenge, so Pirjanian believes the cloud will play a big role in assisting future robots with daily tasks. "A robot can use the cloud to start learning things about its environment," he said. "For example, this object is a cup and so I have to grab it like this; it looks like it’s glass so I need to grip it tight enough so it doesn’t slip but not too hard so it breaks."
iRobot is also exploring a move beyond floors that could see the company creating robots to clean windows, a bathtub, or your backyard. Unfortunately the biggest question in all of this is when, and sadly Pirjanian stopped short of offering any sort of timeframe during the interview.