The last time I checked my home did not have any traffic lights in it and yet I might need to install some to cope with a future where there will be multiple robots running around and potentially colliding. You see, way in the future we may have a home based robot that can handle many tasks and therefore we would only need one robot however today and for the foreseeable future it looks like we are faced with having many single tasking robots performing tasks like:

  • Carpet cleaning
  • Floor washing
  • In home elderly person monitoring
  • Chasing me to say here is the phone…someone important keeps calling
  • Home monitoring
  • Tele-presence
  • Child Edutainment
  • Toy removal  / organization
  • And more..

With all of these robots running around, the home could quickly become a traffic nightmare. Imagine! You spend your time driving home from work through heavy traffic, walk into your supposedly tranquil home only to find multiple robots fighting over floor space, charging stations and more. In addition all of these robots will require your attention. Perhaps the robotic vacuum is now full and needs to be emptied, the floor washing robot needs fresh water to be added and all the robots require firmware upgrades not to mention two robots arguing over which one gets to put the toy away first! The home of the future starts to appear to be more like work as you add new robotic capabilities. Weren’t robots supposed to make our lives easier?

Of course the above scenario is offered only as a humorous look into the future. In the future these robots will be able to find a charging station, perhaps fill themselves up with fresh water if needed and avoid colliding with each other and be able to interact with each other but for now some human interaction will be required. In reality if your home ever has multiple robots then they will be able to navigate around you, your family and home with ease and limit their need to have you maintain them while performing useful tasks.

The challenge right now is that in home robots tend to be single tasking i.e. they are designed to only do one job and do it well. The secondary and very real challenge is that any robot is seen as a luxury and therefore not many households can claim to own a robot. Perhaps consumers feel that a robot is too expensive as it only does one thing although many consumers have already invested in robots. However would these same consumers think differently if the robot could do many things simply by interchanging parts?

Today in the PC world there is an entire industry supplying replacement PC parts. Your PC might be sluggish. No problem just go and upgrade the motherboard with a faster processor or more RAM. Graphic card not quick enough? Simply swap it out for a new one. Need some new software? Go to an app store. The question is could robotics manufacturers do the same thing?

Microsoft sees robotics as having the same challenge as the computer industry used to have and that was too many unique and proprietary hardware / software combinations. Today most if not all robotic  manufacturers produce their own unique hardware and software standards with no way of interchanging the parts sometimes even with robots from the same manufacturer. If I buy a robotic carpet cleaner why do I need to buy a new robot from the same company to wash the floors. Why can’t I just buy a new base then use the brains  / sensors / power components from my first robot to power the second?

What would happen if there was not only a standard for a robotic operating system i.e. the software but also the hardware as well such as power, communications and interconnects. With such a product consumers may be more inclined to invest in a robot knowing that with the addition of more low cost add-ons it can do multiple jobs. Perhaps a manufacturer would give you the parts needed to have the robot do two useful tasks then offer to sell you upgrades for additional tasks. With such hardware standards the robot carpet cleaner might with the addition of a new sensor module also be useful for in home monitoring. Perhaps with another set of add-ons the robot could now be used to interact with the family, challenge the kids with a math question of the day and simply be a fun device for them to get them excited about technology.

If we take this to the extreme,  the vision would be to have a multi-level robot with a base chassis we will call level 1 which would house the motors / encoders and wheels. However with the addition of the garden attachment or entirely new chassis you now have the base for the robotic lawn mower with blades for grass cutting. On top of this would be level 2. This level would have a series of sensors for 360 degree coverage and again would be useful for both in home and outside such as the garden. However again operating outside might cause additional challenges such as bright sunlight interfering etc. You might opt for the replacement level 2 called the garden sensor package which gives you better sensor coverage for operating outside.

Now moving up the robot to level 3 you have the brains of the robot. This would be the level that had the operating system, motherboard, hard drives / SSD etc. Of course like any PC it would be fully upgradeable. Moving up the levels we get to level 4 which might be another sensor level with another bank of sensors at a high level to give increased coverage. Perhaps the final level would be level 5 which might include a video display for tele-presence and communications, in fact you might simply drop a tablet device such as a Surface RT on to it. With this idea it becomes clear that when your lawn needs mowing you simply lift a couple of levels off your in home robot, Walk outside and drop them onto the Lawn Mower Robot chassis and now you have a second robot enabled but have only paid for the price of the base lawnmower chassis.

You can see that by taking this approach the consumer would realize that they are not buying a single robot that can only perform a single task but now instead would be buying into a system with the promise of future upgradeability. In fact the consumer might be so excited by this prospect that they actually buy more than more robot and get used to swapping bits around. Just no more than two ok as we don’t want to get back to the traffic jam problem J. Some families may only have one robot and a few replacement levels, others may have a robot downstairs and upstairs but only the mowing chassis or level 1 for outside.

The scenario we would see might be that your robot finishes cleaning the carpets in the house and you lift of level 2, 3 and 4 and go drop them off on the robotic mowing chassis, turn it on and now you have a robot mower. Once finished you think well the floors are clean, the lawn is looking but now we are going on holiday. Let us combine level 2, 3 and 4 on the chassis in the house then also add the video screen level and also the home monitoring level and now we can go on vacation knowing at any time the robot will send us a message if there are any problems and we can also connect to the robot across the internet and check our house remotely.

With this level of both robotic software and now hardware flexibility the average consumer gets the benefit of multiple capabilities and will be encouraged to jump on board the robotic future safe in the knowledge their robot will never be out of date on the hardware side. Of course if all this sounds familiar it is. What I propose is the same as the PC industry, a set of not just software but now hardware standards that can drive up the capabilities of robots in the home and drive down the cost to the average consumer. Of course as the hardware manufactures jump on board the market for software solutions based on this new platform will increase with consumers perhaps paying more to add the more advanced lawn mowing software service that offers to mow your lawn like a tennis court. Beyond just the hardware such an approach will also spark new and even multiple robotic app stores. With many robotics manufacturers working together the possibility of many new software solutions to run on these robots of the future becomes closer to reality.

All it takes to make this vision happen will be to pull together the right set of companies with the vision and means to jump start the robotics revolution. As you research robots in the world you will notice that there is no shortage of companies building robots. Now all we need them to do is to get together around a large table and come to an agreement on what these hardware and software standards should look like and the long promised robotics revolution will finally really get started.

We have two choices:

  • Face a future where consumers buy multiple robots that cannot interact with each other and use very different software and hardware standards to perform very distinct tasks. Kind of like those late night commercials for all those kitchen gadgets you cannot live without and wait, order in the next 10 minutes and we will double your robotic order..:-)
  • Enjoy a future where robotic manufacturers of the world come together and agree to adopt a common hardware and software standard and open consumers up to a new world of in home robotic help / assistance / entertainment where the robots share common standards for hardware / software and therefore drive down the cost to the consumer.

 Which future would you prefer?


John O'Donnell, Technical Evangelist, DPE
Microsoft Corporation