Real Estate Robots

Ó by Ron Rothenberg


What ever happened to the real promise of the robotic age? Where are the robots they promised me at the 1964 World’s Fair? Y’know, the ones that would clean our homes and offices, like the Jetson’s domestic robot, Rosie? Where are the robots that will mow our lawns? Where are the robots that will eliminate some of the repetitious drudgery from our work life?

Fasten the seat belt on your recliner: They’re here. In fact, their prototypes are working, without pay and without complaint, right now. There’s even a robot that can show houses for you.

Since ancient times people have dreamed of having intelligent contraptions capable of offering us companionship, entertaining us, or just helping us do our least favorite tasks. The word "robot" itself was coined in 1920 by playwright Karel Capek from a Czech word for a feudal forced laborer in his play, R.U.R., (Rossum’s Universal Robots. )

Today, despite problems with initial acceptance by employees, General Motors employs many thousands of robots performing the most critical, repetitious and mundane tasks. No matter what type of automobile you own, chances are it was welded, painted and quality-inspected, in large part by robots.

If you work in an office building, you may be seeing robotic janitors soon – there are already many in use cleaning carpeting and vacuuming up – without human help. For less than $25,000 you can buy an industrial robotic carpet cleaner named Dolphin from Von Schrader Company of Racine WI, (>) that will work for over an hour without human help. After an hour, it only needs someone to refill its cleaning chemicals. Robotic chimney sweeps now clean chimneys where it would be hard to fit a human. Robotic vacuum cleaners, that clean large offices and warehouses while avoiding desks, pillars, humans and other large objects, are becoming more common.

In Sweden, Eureka is now testing a mobile, self-maneuvering vacuum cleaner for the home. Professor Keith Doty of the University of Florida and his company, Megatronix, Inc. ( of Gainesville, Florida is putting the finishing touches on a robotic lawn mower, the LawnNibbler® that will mow your lawn, attempting to avoid curbs, kids’ toys, stones and pets, all while you snooze in your hammock.

Could one of the most time-consuming tasks that a real estate agent performs soon be done by robot?

Late this past summer, Minerva, an intelligent and mobile talking robot developed jointly by Carnegie-Mellon’s University’s Robot Learning Laboratory and the University of Bonn’s Computer Science Department gave exhibit tours to visitors to the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington DC.

During her trial employment as a tour-bot, Minerva approached visitors, asked them if they were interested in a tour, commented on their apparel, and showed visitors around the museum’s main exhibit. She offered information and explanations of some of the exhibit’s highlights. She learned the museum’s floor plan then navigated around the exhibit by herself, using only her sensors and processors. Humans could attract her sattention by clapping their hands or touching Minerva’s touch screen ("oooh! That tickles," she responds). And she does it all herself – no remote control.

Minerva bursts into a smile when she approaches visitors. When Minerva is happy, she smiles and sings - - when she’s frustrated, such as when her way is continuously blocked, she frowns and occasionally blasts her horn to try to clear her way.

Minerva’s creators were watching all this from behind the scenes, like nervous parents at the prom, hoping to find out how Minerva acted with large groups of people. They wanted to learn how to improve her friendliness and increase her acceptance by the humans she meets. They also wanted to test her reliability in a crowded environment.

Was she accepted by the humans at the museum? And how! Not only was she accepted, but she was a great hit with museum-goers and staff alike. Kids lined up to touch her and have their photos taken with her. Grownups flocked to see her. She became one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.

"Everyone loved her. Minerva got along with the museum goers and became a big hit with everyone, especially the kids," said one museum staffer. "Minerva can come back and have a job as a tour guide here anytime" said another staffer.

Could Minerva be used to show homes?

"It’s an interesting idea," according to Sebastian Thrun, associate professor of computer science at Carnegie-Mellon University and one of Minerva’s creators, "but there are two major technical problems right now. Minerva can not traverse staircases yet, and also can not handle a dialogue."

"It appears fairly feasible to have a robot that provides some fixed information,but they won’t be able to carry out fluent dialogues in general," said Professor Thrun, "so these robots won’t replace real estate agents, they will augment them."

Professor Thrun believes that such robots might be available in four to five years, in quantity, for $8000-$16,000.

In order for a robot with Minerva’s capability to show a house, you’d need one robot on every floor.

And when will the stair problem be solved? Helen Greiner, president of IS Robotics (, foresees selling a robot that can climb stairs in the very near future. Her company has already delivered prototypes of Urban Robot ( to researchers. Urban robot can scurry up a 25’ staircase in less than eight seconds.

Though it is now extremely expensive to produce stair-climbing robots, she expects that they will eventually sell for "thousands of dollars."

Want to build a tour-bot of your own? You can start with a customized robot body – complete with sensors, vision, mobility systems, positioning controls, onboard computers and – don’t forget – batteries. These are available with a range of options from Real World Interface, Inc. (RWII) of Jaffrey, NH ( )or from IS Robotics in Somerville, MA ( ISR is working on a robot, Urban Robot, that can traverse stairs.

A robot body suitable for a sophisticated, durable tour-bot like Minerva, with enough sensors to learn and maneuver the layout of any home, could be built for today for $20,000 - $50,000, according to Grinnell More, president of RWII. In quantities, they can be built for under $10,000. Prices are expected to drop in the future.

For additional tips on how to build a robot, see Chuck Rosenberg’s Robot Building Tips at

To see many more things that robots are doing now, check out NASA’s Cool Robot of the Week Site:

Ó Copyright 1998, Ronald S. Rothenberg

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