U.N.: Domestic Robot Use to Surge Sevenfold by 2007

U.N.: Domestic Robot Use to Surge Sevenfold by 2007
By Jonathan Fowler
Associated Press
posted: 20 October 2004
03:02 pm ET

GENEVA (AP) -- The use of robots around the home to mow lawns, vacuum
floors and manage other chores is set to surge sevenfold by 2007 as more
consumers snap up smart machines, the United Nations said.
That boom coincides with record orders for industrial robots, said the
U.N.'s annual World Robotics Survey, released Wednesday.
The report, issued by the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe and the
International Federation of Robotics, said that 607,000 automated
domestic helpers were in use at the end of 2003, two-thirds of them
purchased that year.
Most of them -- 570,000 -- were robot vacuum cleaners. Sales of lawn
mowing robots reached 37,000.
By the end of 2007, some 4.1 million domestic robots will likely be in
use, the study said. Vacuum cleaners will still make up the majority, but
sales of window-washing and pool-cleaning robots are also set to take
off, it predicted.
Sales of robot toys, like Sony's canine AIBO, also have risen. The study
said there are now about 692,000 "entertainment robots" around the world.
Colin Angle, Chief Executive of iRobot Corp. of Burlington,
Massachusetts, said many consumers had been introduced to the idea of
household robots 40 years ago with Rosie, the mechanical housekeeper for
the futuristic cartoon family The Jetsons. But until now robots have
failed to live up to their promise.
"Our biggest hurdle right now is skepticism," Angle said. But "we are
just at a point where robots are becoming affordable ... and some of them
can actually do real work."
UNECE said household robots could soon edge their industrial
counterparts, which have dominated the figures since the U.N. body first
began counting in 1990.
Industrial robots have nonetheless continued to recover from the slump
recorded in the 2001 study.
"Falling or stable robot prices, increasing labor costs and continuously
improving technology are major driving forces which speak for continued
massive robot investment in industry," said Jan Karlsson, author of the
414-page study.
In the first half of 2004, business orders for robots were up 18 percent
on the same period a year earlier, mostly in Asia and North America.
Japan still remains the most robotized economy, home to around half the
current 800,000 industrial robots. After several years in the doldrums,
demand there jumped 25 percent in 2003.
But Europe and North America are fast catching up, the study said.
European Union countries were in second place, with 250,000 robots in
operation by the end of last year, mostly in Germany, Italy and France.
Demand from North American businesses rose 28 percent, with some 112,000
robots in service by the end of last year.
The machines are also taking off in richer developing countries,
including Brazil, China and Mexico, spurred by plummeting prices.
Taking the global average, a robot sold in 2003 cost a quarter of what a
robot with the same performance cost in 1990, the study found.
It said that by 2007, world industrial robot numbers will likely reach at
least 1 million.
The term "robot" covers any machine that operates automatically to
perform tasks in a human-like way, often replacing the human workers who
did the job previously. In most cases, robots move under their own
propulsion and do not need to be controlled by a human operator after
they have been programmed.
Most industrial robots are used on assembly lines, chiefly in the auto
industry. But increasingly, companies are using them for other tasks, the
study said.
There are now some 21,000 "service robots" in use, carrying out tasks
such as milking cows, handling toxic waste and even assisting in
operating theaters. The number is set to reach a total of 75,000 by 2007,
the study said.
By the end of the decade, the study said, robots will "not only clean our
floors, mow our lawns and guard our homes but also assist old and
handicapped people with sophisticated interactive equipment, carry out
surgery, inspect pipes and sites that are hazardous to people, fight fire
and bombs."

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