Imperial and Dyson set sights on domestic robots

Dyson has announced plans to develop domestic robots by investing £5m into a joint robotics lab with Imperial College London.

The Dyson Robotics Laboratory will focus on creating better robotic vacuum cleaners but also other types of domestic robot by improving how the devices use cameras and other sensors to understand and move around their environment.

In particular, the researchers hope to overcome current robots’ limited abilities to distinguish between fixed obstacles they must navigate around and items they can push out of the way.

‘We have seen some quite good demonstrations of this seen-understanding and mapping capability in the lab but the robots that are out there in the real world are still pretty much doing jobs in places like factories where the environment can be controlled,’ Prof Andrew Davison, director of the new lab, told The Engineer.

‘If want to open new types of applications in the home or elsewhere where the robot could enter a standard environment you don’t have to modify, the piece that’s been missing is how does the robot understand its environment well enough to do that.’

Dyson first developed a robotic vacuum – the DC06 – in 2001 and reached the point of manufacture but decided not to sell the product, deeming it too expensive and too heavy.

The main engineering challenge facing the Imperial researchers tasked with improving the technology will be to create better 3D computer models of a robot’s environment that will enable it to improve its navigation. 

This will involve processing large amounts of data from visual sensors to create real-time maps of a location that don’t just indicate the shape of objects but also other characteristics such as their texture and colour.

The robot should then be able to identify objects by estimating the probability that they match a similar object listed in a database, but also have the ability to adapt to new situations by recording new classes of object.

The researchers should be helped by continuing advances in computer processing power and the development of cheap but effective cameras and sensors in things like smartphones 

Part of the work will involve identifying the best kind of sensors to use, for example depth sensors that use infrared signals to better record three-dimensional location.

Being able to compile multiple images captured as the robot moves around should make it easier to build up a 3D map, but this adds to the challenge of processing the captured data in real time.

James Dyson said in a statement: ‘My generation believed the world would be overrun by robots by the year 2014. We now have the mechanical and electronic capabilities, but robots still lack understanding –seeing and thinking in the way we do. Mastering this will make our lives easier and lead to previously unthinkable technologies.’

The £8m Dyson Robotics Laboratory at Imperial College will initially recruit 15 scientists, including five PhD researchers, six post-doctoral researchers and space for Dyson research, software and electronics engineers.