Will Dyson Figure Out the Secret to Making Home Robots That Don’t Suck (Up Dirt)?

Will Dyson Figure Out the Secret to Making Home Robots That Don’t Suck (Up Dirt)?
Image: Dyson

Although not a name that immediately comes to mind when people talk about consumer-friendly robots, in a video released today, Dyson revealed the company is actually putting a considerable amount of resources into developing robots that can do more around the house than just suck up dirt.

Robots have long flourished in industrial settings, where they handle jobs that may be too repetitive, too dangerous, or require more precision than humans are capable of. But to date, robots have struggled to find their place in the home. It’s not that consumers don’t want bots running around their house as science fiction has long promised, it’s just that technology has yet to catch up and deliver robots like The Jetsons’ Rosie, or even Star Wars’ R2-D2.

Industrial robots tend to be purpose-built for just a single very specific task, resulting in countless different shapes and sizes of bots making up an entire assembly line. But no one wants a kitchen further cluttered with five or six different robots each handling a specific chore. We ideally just want one that does anything and everything we ask of it.

The one area where robots in the home have thrived is when it comes to cleaning floors. Robo-vacs are now very effective at sucking up dust and debris and even mopping, and their relatively compact and simple puck-shaped designs means they can tuck themselves away out of sight when the job is done and they need a charge. But other attempts to build compact household robots that can roam from room to room have failed to convince consumers they’re worth the investment. Besides invading privacy and collecting data, no one’s sure what Amazon’s Astro is really good for. Security? Sensors and cameras are a far more effective, affordable, and less intrusive solution. Beverage delivery? Astro can’t open the fridge. A smart speaker on wheels that can follow you like a puppy? No one asked for that.

Dyson, a company well known for radically improving mundane household appliances like vacuum cleaners, fans, and hair dryers, is optimistic it can do the same for household robots, and is looking to seriously staff up for the challenge.

Will Dyson Figure Out the Secret to Making Home Robots That Don’t Suck (Up Dirt)?

The company is actually no stranger to robots. Twenty years ago, it developed the Dyson DC06, its first autonomous vacuum cleaner, and while it did a good job of sucking up dirt, its limited battery life was paired with a hefty price tag, leading Dyson to eventually scrap the product before it ever saw the light of day. It was only revealed to the world 12 years later when the company announced its follow-up, the Dyson Eye 360 robot vacuum, which is still part of its floor cleaning line up.

Today Dyson revealed that its robotic aspirations aren’t limited to just floor cleaning. In an effort to attract some 700 new robotics engineers to the company, Dyson released a video, timed to coincide with the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Philadelphia, revealing its robotic research labs in the UK and Singapore. The video also pointed out that, for the past decade, Dyson has been sponsoring PhD work in robotics at London’s Imperial College.

In the video, Jake Dyson gives a tour and small glimpses of the robotics research the company is conducting at its previously secret Hullavington Airfield facility, including everything from work on robotic vision, to dextrous robotic hands capable of picking up delicate and oddly-shaped items.

Will Dyson Figure Out the Secret to Making Home Robots That Don’t Suck (Up Dirt)?

One of the more compelling demos involves a robotic arm with a vacuum on the end that uses 3D mapping to visualise a chair and then clean it; alleviating a pain point in the current crop of robot vacuums, which are only capable of tidying floors. The demonstration also highlights one of the more useful applications of having more capable robots around the home: assisting those with mobility or other challenges who may not be able to perform certain routine household tasks and chores as easily.

The video also features robots handling delicate dishes and picking up toys, and that’s probably where we’re going to see household robots first gaining traction: as assistive devices that can help with chores, before eventually evolving into robots that can do much more. Will Dyson be the first to deliver consumer-ready robots that do more than clean floors? The company strongly believes that bots are a big part of its future (along with wearables) and appears to be ready to spend some big R&D bucks to make that happen, but even it admits that we’re still probably looking at another decade before robots for the home can do more than just suck up dirt.