Chores made easy

IEC International Standards help robots tidy up inside and outside the house

By Morand Fachot

Following the introduction of the first electric vacuum cleaners in the early 20th century, a range of different appliances have helped deal with many household chores. However, all required a certain degree of direct human control until the first autonomous domestic vacuum cleaners were introduced at the turn of this century. Since then robotic appliances have improved and expanded the range of their activities significantly, both indoors and outdoors, thanks in great part to IEC International Standards.

Robotic vacuum cleaner (Photo: Samsung) Robotic vacuum cleaner (Photo: Samsung)

From science fiction to actual applications

For decades science fiction literature and films helped shape the general perception of robots. Until fairly recently, for most people a robot in the domestic environment meant a machine with some human features that could stand upright, move around, communicate and carry out a variety of tasks. However, the complexity of designing and manufacturing such multipurpose android robots, not to mention their cost, meant they have remained confined to the domains of science fiction or research.

Some robotics designers and engineers saw the potential for developing cost-effective robots that could carry out a single set of tasks in the home environment. This led them to build small automated vacuum cleaners, the first of which, the Trilobite, was launched by Electrolux in 2001, with other manufacturers following shortly after. These machines, along with robotic lawn mowers, were the first to usher in robots to the home environment.

Professional service robots, used mainly in the defence, farming, medical, retail and logistics sectors, are sold in much smaller numbers than their domestic service counterparts. However, these high-tech, much more expensive, systems make up the lion's share of turnover in the service robot industry.

IEC International Standards for robots

As there is more to cleaning floors than sweeping up dust, domestic robot manufacturers started developing other appliances based on similar design and principles to wash and polish various types of flooring.

Automated vacuum cleaners and their washing peers, like their traditional counterparts, must be able to clean in tight places and on different surfaces such as hard floors and carpets. In addition the former must be able to navigate their way independently in rooms cluttered with furniture and other obstacles. They must do so safely and without damaging their environment.

To ensure this is what happens, several IEC TCs (Technical Committees) and SCs (Subcommittees) prepare International Standards for systems and components used in robotic vacuum cleaners and cleaning appliances.

The safety of cleaning robots, like that of all household appliances, is essential. IEC TC 61: Safety of household and similar electrical appliances, has prepared an International Standard which covers the safety aspects of vacuum cleaning robots. IEC 60335-2-2Household and similar electrical appliances – Safety – Part 2-2: Particular requirements for vacuum cleaners and water-suction cleaning appliances, stresses that it "also applies to (…) automatic battery-powered cleaners".

Measuring the performance of cleaning appliances is important for manufacturers and consumers alike. SC 59F: Surface cleaning appliances, prepared the IEC 60312-1 and 60312-2International Standards that define the methods for measuring the performance of dry vacuum cleaners and wet cleaning appliances.

SC 59F established WG (Work Group) 5: Methods of measuring the performance of household cleaning robots, to prepare specific standards for this type of appliance. It even went to the lengths of designing a standard room for testing cleaning robot mobility.

Hard labour outside too

Domestic tasks are not limited to indoor environments. While mowing the lawn, scrubbing swimming pools or cleaning gutters may be seasonal occupations, they are nonetheless time-consuming, tedious activities, with the potential to be unsafe. Several manufacturers have developed automated machines that can work outdoors to carry out these chores.

With reports that a quarter of lawn owners dislike cutting their lawns, the sale of robotic lawn mowers is booming. Spotting an opportunity, a number of garden appliance manufacturers began launching electric robotic mowers from the mid-1990s. The latest models incorporate a number of sensors that allow them to avoid obstacles such as trees and garden furniture, to recognize boundaries and even to stop operating and return to their charging dock if it starts to rain.

Robotic domestic mowers are niche products but their sale has literally exploded in Europe, in spite of their rather hefty price. Sales were up 30% in 2012 on the previous year and are forecast to grow by as much as 20% a year over the next 5 years.

Robotic mowers are mature products that have evolved into professional areas such as golf course care or the weeding and edging of commercial sites.

Fewer outdoor jobs for you!

Another demanding outdoor chore on which robots are making an impact is pool cleaning. Robots that can scrub and remove dirt from pool surfaces, allowing owners to save on chemical and energy costs, have been introduced by several manufacturers and are proving increasingly popular. The use of electrical appliances near swimming pools requires special measures.IEC 60364-7-702, prepared by TC 64: Electrical installations and protection against electric shock, sets out the distances at which permitted gear, such as pool cleaning robots, may be installed safely, as well as the characteristics of wiring and current-based equipment used in swimming pools.

A battery-operated gutter cleaning robot is the latest addition to the ranks of outdoor robots. It is designed to take over a potentially hazardous task as it allows users to position the ladder in one spot and let the remote-controlled robot remove leaves, dirt and sludge.

From domestic to social and health worker

An ageing population in industrialized countries is stretching the resources of medical and social services. Robots are seen as offering some useful solutions to a number of problems. In addition to domestic robots that are already helping deal with household chores, some manufacturers have started introducing multipurpose robots that can switch on and off lights remotely and control air conditioning units and other connected appliances via mobile phone apps. When equipped with intruder and smoke sensors they can warn owners of break-ins or fires at home, or act as an air purifier appliance when fitted with a filtration system.

The range of applications for personal service robots is unlimited and a growing number of appliance manufacturers sensing a huge commercial potential are entering the fray.

Robots for the elderly and for handicap assistance are sophisticated and costly products. The market is very different from that of household robots and is just starting up (a mere 156 units were sold in 2011), but the IFR (International Federation of Robotics) forecasts that sales of such robots will reach about 4 600 units for 2012-2015. An example of this type of robot isToyota's HSR (Human Support Robot). It is intended for home use, to help out those with limited mobility by fetching things, opening curtains, and picking up objects that have fallen to the floor.

Managing large families

As an all-purpose domestic robot is unlikely to appear in the foreseeable future, households may face the emerging challenge of managing a number of different types of robotic appliances.

Colin Angle, the CEO and co-founder of iRobot, a pioneering manufacturer of service robots for the home, defence and public safety environments, envisages an environment in which 'human interface robots' with voice recognition and a touch screen and able to navigate around the home will ultimately control smaller devices. "Having a robot for this and a robot for that is confusing," Angle says, adding that users would prefer to say, "I'd like my kitchen vacuumed, or my bathroom scrubbed today. Can you handle that?". And the human interface robot would reply, "Of course!" and ensure the appropriate robot would take care of the chores.

A growing market

The domestic service robot industry is a highly significant and fast-expanding economic sector. The IFR estimates that 1,7 million domestic robots of all types (vacuum cleaning, lawn-mowing, window cleaning and other types), were sold in 2011 (up nearly 19% on 2010) at a total cost of about USD 454 million. The IFR projects sales of almost 11 million units for the period 2012-2015, with an estimated value of USD 4,8 billion.

The expansion of this market, which is very important to the future of the world economy, is underpinned by countless International Standards prepared by many IEC TCs and SCs and covering many components and systems central to the proper and safe operation of service robots.

Robotic vacuum cleaner (Photo: Samsung) Robotic vacuum cleaner (Photo: Samsung)
Hybrid battery/solar-powered robotic lawn mower (Copyright: Husqvarna Group) Hybrid battery/solar-powered robotic lawn mower (Copyright: Husqvarna Group)
iRobot Looj gutter cleaner (Photo: iRobot) iRobot Looj gutter cleaner (Photo: iRobot)